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Staying healthy in cold weather

Cold weather can cause hypothermia and frostbite, both dangerous conditions that people should be vigilant for.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is caused when a person’s body temperature drops due to exposure to cold. If a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees, seek immediate medical help.

Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, pale and cold skin, confusion or sleepiness, slurred speech, shallow breathing, weak pulse, stiffness of arms and legs or poor control over body movement.

If you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, seek medical attention and keep the person warm — wrap them in warm, dry blankets and if possible, give them warm beverages.

Frostbite

Frostbite is caused when a person’s flesh freezes, causing damage to the tissue. Extremities are most susceptible to frostbite. Danger increases when the area is wet.

Symptoms include gradual numbness, hardness and paleness of the skin, pain and tingling or burning when warming the affected area and a possible change of skin color to purple.

If you suspect someone is suffering from frostbite, warm the affected area but do not rub it, as that may cause further damage.

Keeping warm

The following tips can help you deal with winter weather in as healthy as way as possible

-Cover your head with a hat, hood or scarf

-Wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing — the air trapped in the layers offers extra insulation

-Wear mittens rather than gloves if possible

-Wear leggings and socks, or multiple layers of socks

-Wear sturdy or waterproof shoes or boots to keep feet warm and dry.

Information from the Prince George’s County Health Department.

Space heater and fireplace safety

Space heaters, fireplaces and other heating devices can help people keep warm during cold weather, but they are also a major contributing factor in residential fires, according to the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. The following are among tips they suggest for safe operation of these devices.

-Make sure all rooms with fuel-burning appliances have proper ventilation, and are on a level, noncarpeted floor (never on furniture, as it may fall)

-Store fuel such as kerosene or other flammable liquids in metal containers, outside of the house

-Never refill a heater inside the house or while it is still hot, or operating. Do not overfill — liquid fuel may expand as it warms

-Keep the area around fireplaces and heaters clean and free of clothing or other loose, flammable objects. Keep pets and children away

-Do not use liquid accelerants such as lighter fluid to start a fire in your fireplace

-Always use a screen in front of a fireplace to guard against sparks and embers

-Don’t dispose of hot ashes in or near the home — put them in a metal container away from the building

-Don’t use electric heaters in a bathroom or near water

-Make sure every level of your home has a working smoke alarm, and that there’s a carbon monoxide detector outside the sleeping areas

Information from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service

From fire and rescue personnel and shelters to water and power utilities, the cold weather forecast to last through the end of the weekend has a number of agencies in preparation mode.

Mary Anderson, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, said the department has a plan to open emergency shelters for longer hours during extreme weather, or when the wind chill dips below 20 degrees.

“Before the weekend, because of the inauguration and because we knew cold weather was forecast to be coming, that plan went into effect,” Anderson said.

From about November through March each year, the county makes more beds available at the men’s shelter on East Gude Drive and Community Vision shelter in Silver Spring.

“In the event of severe weather, we make some of our shelters available in the daytime,” she said.

The county also arranges transportation to overflow shelters when the Gude Drive and Silver Spring facilities are full.

She also said emergency preparedness is key. Local nursing home inspectors, Anderson said, are reaching out to nursing homes to make sure they have the supplies they need in emergencies, such as generators. Any senior experiencing problems can call 311 or contact the county’s Crisis Center, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The crisis center can link seniors with the correct agencies such as Aging and Disability Services.

About 50 of Alan P. Linton Jr. Emergency Shelter in Frederick’s 80 beds this week have been occupied by members of the county’s homeless population on average, according to the Rev. Brian Scott, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs.

The coalition operates a cold weather shelter program at 27 DeGrange St., that provides shelter for the homeless from November to March. The program runs from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. each day during the winter season and provides services to anyone who is 18 or older.

Scott said that with temperatures dipping, the shelter has seen an increase in the number of clients.

“We always do see an increase [in clients] when it gets colder...,” he said. “January and February are usually are high census month.”

Last week, Scott said the shelter hit a high for the month, with 61 clients served.

The possibility of not having enough space to accommodate those in need of shelter is not a concern for operators, Scott said.

“We’ve never filled up,” he said. “Plus we have partnership with [other emergency service providers] if we exceed our bed number.”

Anderson said it is important to know your neighbors.

“If you’ve got an elderly neighbor, this is the time to be a good neighbor and check on that person,” Anderson said.

Jimmy Frazier-Bey, division chief of Homeless Services in Gaithersburg, said the city can open an overflow shelter if other shelters in the county fill up, but it hasn’t needed to so far.

Gaithersburg operates a transitional housing shelter, but the street outreach team also refers homeless people to shelters in Rockville and Silver Spring.

“I’ve been out on the streets referring people to the men’s emergency shelter,” Frazier-Bey said. “... It’s been pretty cold out there.”

Even though the Frederick County Public Schools experienced a 2-hour delay this morning due to the snow, Michael Doerrer, FCPS spokesperson, said that system officials have not noticed any dip in school attendance this week, as a result of the weather.

“It’s been business as usual,” he said.

Utilities

I.J. Hudson, a spokesperson for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, said that their crews are ready for and used to handling the effects of the cold weather on the area’s water mains.

“We started preparing for this several months ago,” Hudson said.

With more water main breaks expected as the weather and Potomac River’s waters get chillier, Hudson said the commission shifts its crews around to concentrate staff who can repair the breaks.

George Brill, a Germantown-based plumber and member of the Washington Suburban Master Plumbers Association, a Damascus-based trade association for plumbers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said it is too early to tell how pipes may fare in the cold weather, as pipes typically do not burst until the temperature rises after a cold front.

Brill said homeowners should turn off water at the main valve before leaving their home for an extended period of time to avoid water freezing in pipes.

“If you’re away at work and it defrosts, a burst pipe can flood your house,” Brill said. “So do that until you’ve had a day or two of warmer weather to make sure it’s okay.”

Water isn’t the only utility that can be negatively affected by cold weather. As of 10 a.m. Thursday, Pepco had reported 50 outages in Montgomery County and less than five outages in Prince George’s County, while BGE reported no outages in Prince George’s. Pepco spokesman Marcus Beal said that with the consistently frigid weather this week, any snow during this time will likely not cause any major outages.

“When it’s so cold like it has been, snow just comes down as the fluffy light powder, which doesn’t really cause us any issues,” Beal said. “That heavier wet snow or ice [that comes from slightly warmer temperatures] that’s the really bad stuff for us.”

Beal said the frigid air keeps Pepco officials on alert for “cracking” in lines and equipment, but that officials haven’t seen much of that happen so far.

Pet care

Paul Hibler, deputy director of the Montgomery County police department’s animal services division, said that, when temperatures dip, dogs that are kept outside must have access to a shelter that has four walls and a top, is up off the ground and contains non-absorbent bedding such as straw or wood shavings, among other shelter requirements in county regulations.

Hibler said pet owners should also provide water for their outdoor dogs multiple times a day when the water could freeze. Outdoor dogs will also burn more calories as their bodies work harder to maintain their body temperature, and will need some extra food.

After dogs are taken for a walk, he said, pet owners should clean off any de-icing materials, which are irritants, from paws and undersides.

When it comes to cats, Hibler said owners should also provide adequate protection from the elements and that drivers in general should watch out for the felines that slip under the car to get close to the warm engine.

Drivers should tap the hood or honk the horn, he said, before starting the car to prevent a cat from getting caught in the engine belt.

Horses, Hibler added, should be kept close to an adequate windbreak such as a line of trees or have access to a run-in shed when out of the barn.

Staff writers Lindsay Powers, Kara Rose, Erich Wagner, Elizabeth Waibel and Morgan Young contributed to this report.