Post-Sandy Nor'easter Poses Hypothermia Risk

For people displaced by Sandy, some fear the worst may be yet to come.

ByDr. Josh Rothstein, Abc News Medical Unit
November 06, 2012, 4:28 PM

Nov. 7, 2012— -- As those facing the devastation left in the wake of Sandy continue to seek shelter, meteorologists point to a new threat -- a nor'easter heading for devastated areas.

The storm could pack 50-mile-per-hour gusts in coastal areas, 1 to 3 inches of rain from New York to Boston and a continuation of the frigid temperatures that followed last week's superstorm.

It's a situation that has some doctors worried that many of those affected by Sandy could face a life-threatening situation in the form of hypothermia.

"Many left without power and heat will be at risk of hypothermia as the Nor'easter is scheduled to hit the New York City and New Jersey area," said Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, assistant professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

The strong wind and rain is expected to hit the New Jersey and New York coast early Wednesday morning. Worse, some models are predicting a 40-50 percent chance of snow in the metro New York area by Wednesday night, and winds up to 40 miles per hour are expected to continue into Thursday.

The Red Cross is increasing efforts in New York, offering shelter to roughly 9,000 people and handing out an additional 80,000 blankets Monday night -- a clear indication of where the organization's concerns lie when it comes to those without heat or shelter.

"Certainly one of our biggest concerns is the cold, because you have people without power," said Red Cross spokeswoman Melanie Pipkin. "We're ramping up our efforts so these people have even more blankets, more hand warmers. We really want to make sure everyone stays warm."

Hypothermia occurs when the body's temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This puts people at risk to develop serious lung, heart, or nervous system problems, sometimes leading to death.

Symptoms of hypothermia include appearing confused or intoxicated or shivering, although shivering actually stops at severely cold body temperatures.

"As people get colder, they actually stop shivering, losing their ability to retain any heat," said Dr. Darria Gillespie, emergency physician at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "They may also almost appear intoxicated, with confusion, clumsiness, slurred speech, and fatigue."

In the most serious of cases, the potential complications from hypothermia can be severe, even fatal.

"The complications can range from minor cold related illness to death from prolonged exposure or complications from prolonged exposure," said Dr. Henderson McGinnis, emergency physician at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The very young and very old may be at the highest risk.

"The elderly often have difficulty with thermoregulation and infants have a relatively larger body surface area thus are at increase heat loss risk," said Dr. Christopher Russi, emergency physician at the Mayo Clinic.

As for preventative measures, seeking shelter and warm clothes is the overwhelmingly popular recommendation.

"Those without heat need to find a place with it as the temperatures fall these next few nights, dressing in layers and wearing a hat and avoiding alcohol are key factors to prevent it as well," said Dr. Robert McNamara, chair of emergency medicine at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

The Red Cross' Pipkin says it is "hard to speculate" as to what the worst case scenario would be in terms of the nor'easter's impact on those affected by Sandy. But she says that it would be unwise to underestimate the approaching storm.

"We always try to prepare for the worst," she said.

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