Keep tabs on the potentially vulnerable during a cold snap — hypothermia can be deadly.
When temperatures get below freezing, people with prolonged exposure to the cold are at risk of hypothermia, a potentially deadly drop in an individual's internal temperature. Those who are already sick or vulnerable, like infants and the elderly, face stronger risks. Health experts urge people to make a special effort to check in on elderly relatives and neighbors during bouts of potentially deadly cold.
How can you tell if somebody has hypothermia? The National Institute of Aging says to look for the "umbles"— stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles — these show that the cold is a problem. Check for:
- Confusion or sleepiness
- Slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Change in behavior or in the way a person looks
- A lot of shivering or no shivering; stiffness in the arms or legs
- Poor control over body movements or slow reactions
The Red Cross has compiled some tips and strategies for staying warm in frigid temperatures.
Local governments typically deploy extra resources for the homeless and vulnerable in the D.C. area:
- Emergency shelters in the District are operated on a first-come, first-serve basis. A list of locations can be found on the D.C. Department of Human Services website. Overflow shelter sites in D.C. are as follows: Banneker Recreation Center, Kennedy Recreation Center and Columbia Heights Recreation Center.
- During storms and strong cold spells, Arlington County keeps its emergency winter shelter, located at 2049 15th Street North, open during the day. Usually it is open only from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. To check, visit their site at a-span.org.
- Fairfax County offers six emergency shelters with additional capacity during winter weather. Officials remind people that the county's libraries and community centers also serve as warming centers for people who need to come in from the cold. And the county animal shelter offers temporary emergency housing for pets that do not have access to indoor shelter.
- Maryland 2-1-1 has a list of other emergency shelters located throughout the state of Maryland.
The risk of hypothermia is particularly accute for the area's homeless population. If you see a person in the area who is in need of shelter, call one of these cold weather crisis hotlines:
- The District — 800-535-7252
- Arlington County — 703-527-4077
- Fairfax County — 703-691-2131
- Prince George's County — 888-731-0999
- Montgomery County — 240-777-4000
- Maryland Crisis Hotline — 301-662-2255
The frigid temperatures can also be taxing for pets. Here are some cold weather pet tips from the ASPCA:
- Never let your dog off the leash on snow or ice, especially during a snowstorm, dogs can lose their scent and easily become lost. More dogs are lost during the winter than during any other season, so make sure yours always wears ID tags.
- Thoroughly wipe off your dog's legs and stomach when he comes in out of the sleet, snow or ice. He can ingest salt, antifreeze or other potentially dangerous chemicals while licking his paws, and his paw pads may also bleed from snow or encrusted ice.
- Never shave your dog down to the skin in winter, as a longer coat will provide more warmth. When you bathe your dog in the colder months, be sure to completely dry him before taking him out for a walk. Own a short-haired breed? Consider getting him a coat or sweater with a high collar or turtleneck with coverage from the base of the tail to the belly. For many dogs, this is regulation winter wear.
- Never leave your dog or cat alone in a car during cold weather. A car can act as a refrigerator in the winter, holding in the cold and causing the animal to freeze to death.
- Like coolant, antifreeze is a lethal poison for dogs and cats. Be sure to thoroughly clean up any spills from your vehicle, and consider using products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol. Visit the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center more information.
- Make sure your companion animal has a warm place to sleep, off the floor and away from all drafts. A cozy dog or cat bed with a warm blanket or pillow is perfect.