Special precautions for subzero outings

Posted Jan. 24, 2011, at 10:03 p.m.

Very cold weather, such as the Arctic freeze that currently holds Maine in its subzero grip, does more than nip at fingers and toes. For individuals who suffer from chronic health conditions, exposure to frigid temperatures can be life-threatening.

According to Bangor cardiologist Dr. Robert Allen, executive medical director of Penobscot Community Health Center, Mainers with heart disease, asthma, emphysema, diabetes, circulatory problems and other chronic conditions should take special precautions until winter temperatures moderate a bit.

“The response to cold weather is dramatic in terms of driving up heart rate and blood pressure,” Allan said. “The cold is an extra stress for the heart.”

That means people who must guard against overworking their cardiovascular systems — including those with a history of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure — should be mindful of the cold.

But that doesn’t mean Mainers should stay indoors and vegetate, he said.

“Some people will say it’s too cold to go out, and they’ll stay in the house day after day, week after week,” he said. But by dressing in warm layers and waiting until midday to venture out, he said, people with chronic illness can both safeguard their health and get the fresh air and exercise they need.

In addition to worsening cardiac symptoms, cold weather also can trigger asthma attacks and other breathing difficulties. Again, Allen said, this should not keep people housebound.

“We recommend that they wear a scarf and use it as a filter to breathe through,” he said. This simple intervention both warms and moistens the air entering the lungs, relaxing airway muscles and improving oxygen absorption.

Mainers with thyroid, pituitary and other endocrine problems often have trouble regulating their body temperatures and may be especially susceptible to hypothermia, while those with diabetes, peripheral vascular disease and other conditions that affect blood circulation are more prone to frostbite.

But by choosing appropriate clothing, waiting for the warmer hours of the day, and not staying out too long, most people with chronic conditions can tolerate and enjoy a winter outing, even in the grip of an Arctic cold front.

“Don’t let the cold weather make you a prisoner in your house,” Allen said. “It’s OK to go out; you just have to be smart about it.”

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