Cold-related deaths often accompanied by other medical factors

Winter is officially still 10 days away, but state health officials say four Marylanders have already died from cold-related causes.

Two of the dead were drowning victims, officials said. But the other two were more typical hypothermia cases involving both cold and underlying medical factors.

"You don't have to have an underlying medical condition" to be vulnerable to hypothermia and death, said Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, assistant director for environmental health at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "But it's the people we know are especially at risk ... we worry about."

Their common problems include homelessness, alcohol abuse, heart disease, advanced age, dementia and poverty.

"We worry about people living on the edge in poverty ... not just the chronically poor, but also the new poor," Mitchell said.

Economically stressed people often don't pay their energy bills, he said. And, as their homes grow cold, they may turn to the stove, the oven or improperly vented space heaters for warmth, risking carbon monoxide poisoning or fire.

The season's first cold-related deaths involved a woman in Baltimore who died Nov. 21; a Montgomery County man who died Nov. 28; an Anne Arundel County man who died Nov. 30; and a Baltimore County woman who died Dec. 4. Last year, 54 Marylanders died under similar circumstances.

"We typically think of these as extremely cold events. The truth is, most of them are not," Mitchell said. Rather, it's temperature, the length of the exposure and the body's ability to keep itself warm.

Alcohol "tends to make people unaware of the fact that they're freezing to death, or their core temperature is dropping to dangerous levels," Mitchell said. "Often, taking medications, particularly medications that make people sleepy or drowsy, are contributors here."

Heart conditions, circulatory problems and advanced age can impair the body's ability to stay warm. People with memory or cognition problems or who are socially isolated are also at increased risk.

"We stress that it's incumbent on each one of us to check on our neighbors, our relatives," he said. "These are fully preventable deaths."

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