Dying to Stay Warm

Certain groups are at greater risk of injury or death than others. Elderly people -- particularly the poor elderly -- make up one of these groups.

"We recently had an elderly man die from hypothermia because he felt he could not afford to keep his heat on," Mirarchi said. "He, like many other elderly, had medical conditions that would not allow him to readily compensate for the cold and generate body heat."

Asthma sufferers also have pre-existing medical conditions that put them at greater risk of injury from cold weather. And the recent cold snap has sent many of these patients to emergency rooms in affected areas.

"We have seen a several hundred percent increase in new and existing patients with asthma coming in for urgent and emergency care due to the extreme cold air," said Dr. Clifford Bassett, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

"In particular, the cold 'dry' air is a very significant trigger for children and adults with asthma," Bassett said.

How to Protect Yourself

For families who are poor, the unusually cold weather presents a difficult dilemma: Stay warm, or stay safe?

Guy says that though this is a difficult decision for many to make, safety is paramount.

"It is probably better to be cold at 50 degrees than for your house to burn down," he said.

However, in dangerously chilly temperatures, there are certain things that people can do to keep themselves and their families safe.

Do not use space heaters in the proximity of anything flammable. Likewise, do not get too close, as the small but powerful heater can often cause clothes to catch fire.

If you live in an older home, make certain your furnace is properly maintained.

Do not overload electrical circuits, as a short circuit may result in an electrical fire.

If you are using a fireplace, make certain it is clean and that the flue is opened during use.

Invest in a smoke detector and, if necessary, a carbon monoxide detector.

Limit exposure to the cold, particularly if you are elderly or have a condition that makes you susceptible to low temperatures.

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