The state has recorded its first cold-related death this season, a 65-year-old woman who died of complications from hypothermia in Garrett County, according to the Maryland Department of Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The health department did not release many details about the case but said the woman died the week of Nov. 19 and was not homeless. Temperatures in the county that week ranged from a high of 61 degrees to a low of 12 degrees, according to weather reports.
There were 34 cold-related deaths in Maryland last winter and 20 the year before.
Although the state is expected to have a mild winter this year, people can still develop dangerous cold-related illnesses when the temperatures are above freezing.
“Hypothermia can occur even when temperatures are 40 or 50 degrees outside,” Dr. Jinlene Chan, acting deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Health’s Public Health Services Administration, said in a statement. “Take steps to stay warm and dry. Now is the time to buy emergency supplies for your home and car, such as extra blankets and a first-aid kit.”
The state and local health departments monitor temperatures and incidences of cold-related illnesses and deaths during the winter months from November through March.
People who are outdoors and not properly dressed for cold weather during this period are in danger of developing hypothermia, frostbite and other cold weather-related medical conditions. There is also the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and injuries from heat sources as people try to stay warm.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 95 degrees, a dangerously low level that can cause the heart and respiratory and nervous systems to fail. Frostbite damages the skin and underlying tissue. It can occur when the skin’s temperature falls below 32 degrees.The body parts most likely to freeze are toes, fingers, ears, cheeks, and the tip of the nose.
The Baltimore City Health Department announced Code Blue season last month. During the Code Blue period, various city departments work to reduce hypothermia deaths, particularly among vulnerable populations such as seniors, infants and homeless people. There were 12 hypothermia-related deaths in the city last winter.
“This is the time we must watch out for each other,” said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen.
There are plenty of people who get cold-related illnesses and don’t die. The emergency room at the University of Maryland Medical Centers gets many of those cases during the winter months. Most of the patients are homeless, said Dr. George Willis, an emergency room doctor and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“It is usually the less fortunate and underserved population that will present with cold-related illnesses,” he said.
Doctors are usually able to warm the patients up with blankets and warm lights they place over the patient. In severe cases they may deliver warm fluids through the body intravenously. Or they may use a catheter to deliver warm water in the bladder, Willis said. The hope is to warm up the patient’s core.