This year began with snowstorms on the Eastern seaboard and with sub-zero temperatures in the Midwest. While central Illinois saw a short respite for a couple days last week, the cold weather is back, with two more months of winter remaining.

According to the Center for Disease Control, hypothermia may be most typically associated with exposure to extreme cold. However, central Illinois residents who venture outdoors need to be prepared even for relatively balmy days when the temperature is in the 30s or 40s. Hypothermia can occur in cool weather if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Warning signs of hypothermia in infants include bright red, cold skin and very low energy. In adults, hypothermia symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. Body temperature that is too low can affect the brain, making a victim unable to think clearly or move well.

“When mental status deteriorates, people don’t have the ability to function normally or process their thoughts,” said Dr. Kelly Cox, emergency department medical director at UnityPoint Health - Pekin. “We worry about that with severe hypothermia, because those people are exposed to the environment and don’t realize they’re deteriorating. They don’t take any action to intervene or stop their body temperatures from going down.”

The Center for Disease Control recommends that a person with a body temperature of below 95 degrees Fahrenheit seek immediate medical attention. If medical care is not immediately available, interim treatment consists of warming hypothermia victims by getting them into a warm room or shelter, removing any wet clothing, warming the center of the victim’s body with blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets, and giving the patient warm beverages. After the body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket and get medical attention as soon as possible.

As is the case with most medical concerns, the best option for combatting hypothermia is prevention. Most precautions are simple, common-sense measures like wearing warm clothing and not spending too much time outdoors.

“The big thing is preparation,” said Cox. “When it’s cold, there are a lot of unknowns. Carry blankets in your vehicle in case you have a breakdown. But the most important thing is to have adequate protection from the environment, such as multi-layered clothing, a good coat, a warm hat, gloves and shoes. We lose a lot of heat through our heads, so it’s important to keep your head adequately covered. You also don’t want any skin exposed when it’s really cold, so good scarves and facial protection come into play.”

Cox added that UnityPoint Health has treated fewer than 10 hypothermia cases so far this winter, which appears to indicate that most area residents were properly prepared for this year’s frigid opening week.

People who are high risk for hypothermia are babies sleeping in cold bedrooms, people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs, and people who remain outdoors for long periods like, hikers, hunters and the homeless. In addition to providing year-round shelter for the homeless at the Rust Transitional Center, the Pekin Salvation Army opens a warming center during the winter.

“It’s just a place where someone who isn’t living at the center can come in, get out of the cold, and have a warm place to sleep,” said Rust Transitional Center staff member Dale Holmes. “We have beds and blankets. If we have warm clothing available, we provide it.”

Also at increased risk for hypothermia are older adults without adequate food, clothing or heating. It is therefore imperative to check on the elderly or other shut-ins.

“The elderly are at risk because of their age and because many of them take multiple medications that can affect their body temperatures,” said Cox. “They can rapidly progress to severe hypothermia without really being aware of it. Also, they could slip on the ice, have a simple fall, and be unable to get help. So, there are a multitude of reasons that hypothermia is a special hazard for the elderly.”