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Cold weather brings health, safety risks

Jack Erickson, 11, of Willmar is wisely dressed for the weather with hat, scarf and parka as he skates Tuesday at the ice rink at Garfield School in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- By the time winter is over, local emergency medical workers figure they'll have treated at least a few cases of hypothermia, broken bones from falling on ice, chest pains triggered by shoveling snow, and even a few snowblower-related injuries.

Be careful out there, because this time of year can be risky, say local health officials.

"Take care of yourself. It's knowing to bundle up, to wear your gloves wear your hat. Some of it is just common sense," said Carrie Yungerberg, a critical-care paramedic with the Willmar Ambulance Service.

With temperatures predicted to fall below zero the next few nights, cold is one of the biggest enemies.

Exposure to cold can cause the body to lose heat, leading to decreased body temperature, or hypothermia. Mild cases are characterized by shivering and the loss of a few degrees of normal body temperature. In severe cases, a person's internal temperature can fall to 86 degrees or lower (normal is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), resulting in loss of consciousness and sometimes death.

"Everybody's at risk," Yungerberg said. Elderly people, whose circulation is often impaired, and infants and small children are the most vulnerable, however, she said.

Getting wet -- for instance, going through the ice on a lake -- also increases the likelihood of hypothermia because the body loses heat more rapidly, she said.

So can the consumption of alcohol. In recent years, a handful of deaths have occurred in Minnesota among individuals who drank, went outdoors in cold winter weather and developed fatal hypothermia.

"Alcohol gives you that sensation of being warm," Yungerberg said. An individual who's drinking can lose awareness of how cold it is, remove a few layers of clothing and soon become hypothermic, she explained.

Local ambulances are equipped with heat packs and disposable heating blankets to treat hypothermia victims at the scene. In Rice Memorial Hospital's emergency room, heat lamps, warm intravenous solutions and a Bair Hugger, a warming system that infuses heated air through a blanket, are often used to help bring the patient's body temperature back to normal.

Most of the time, hypothermia can be prevented simply by taking precautions -- wearing layers of warm clothing and limiting the amount of time spent outdoors in cold weather.

This is especially the case for children, Yungerberg said. "If they say they're cold, get them out of the cold. Pay attention to the signs."

Frostbite tends to be underdiagnosed because most people don't seek medical care except in severe cases. Nevertheless, there are probably thousands of cases that occur in the U.S. each year. The extremities -- ears, nose, fingertips and toes -- are the most likely to be affected.

"It's less of an emergency but it's still something people need to be conscious of. Even during the day, frostbite of uncovered skin is a big thing," Yungerberg said. Once someone has sustained frostbite, he or she will be more vulnerable to frostbite in the future, she noted.

Icy streets and sidewalks pose risks of their own. On Tuesday, Willmar ambulance crews were kept busy with multiple crashes. Over the past month, local paramedics also dealt with at least two calls involving people who apparently slipped and fell on ice and were unresponsive.

A new report by the Minnesota Department of Health points to the winter months as the most likely time of year for carbon monoxide poisoning. From 2003 to 2007, unintentional CO poisoning was responsible for 61 deaths, 175 hospitalizations and 1,261 emergency room visits in Minnesota, according to the report, which was released Tuesday.

The deaths and hospitalizations disproportionately affected residents of outstate Minnesota, the report found.

Although carbon monoxide poisoning can occur at any time of the year, it's more common in winter because of faulty or improperly maintained furnaces, and heating devices such as space heaters.