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Monday, December 22, 2014

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Snow moves out, leaves bitter cold

Updated 10:47 pm, Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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  • Elivia Saquicela sweeps snow from her driveway and walk on Summit Street in Danbury, Conn., Wednesday morning, Januray 22, 2014. Photo: Carol Kaliff / The News-Times

    Elivia Saquicela sweeps snow from her driveway and walk on Summit Street in Danbury, Conn., Wednesday morning, Januray 22, 2014.

    Photo: Carol Kaliff

 

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A winter storm that dumped between 3 and 11 inches of light, powdery snow on the region cleared up by mid-Wednesday. But the real story is the bitter cold that will remain in place for the rest of the week and -- after a brief respite this weekend -- looks to keep the region in an icy grip next week as well.

And that could be bad news for your body, said the region's doctors. A long run of cold temps can increase the risk of frostbite, hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning and even flu and some forms of depression.

"It's the old and the young that you really have to worry about," said Dr. Rock Ferrigno, chairman of the emergency department at Bridgeport Hospital.

He said sometimes elderly and those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, don't have full feeling in their fingers and other extremities, so "they might not realize how cold they are."

Small children can also be sensitive to low temperatures, Ferrigno said. He remembered an incident from last year when a child got frost nip -- a milder precursor to frostbite, marked numbness and tingling in extremities -- from having their feet next to a closed window that wasn't properly insulated.

Ferrigno said this latest blast of frigid weather hadn't caused a spike in emergency room visits for cold-related ills. But nearby St. Vincent's Medical Center has seen a run of frost nip, and will likely see more as the chills continue, said Dr. Doodnauth Hiraman, interim chairman of the emergency department at St. Vincent's.

"With the sub-freezing temperatures, you can get frost nip pretty readily," he said.

Expect the deep freeze to persist for much of the week, with a high of 20 on Thursday, and a slight chance of snow showers after noon. With the wind chill, it could feel as cold as -10. On Friday the chill will continue with a high near 19.

In addition to frost nip and frost bite, doctors warned of more extreme exposure injuries -- namely hypothermia, in which the body gets so cold its core temperature drops several degrees.

Again, this is most common among the more vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those with alcohol problems. "It's not rare, but it's definitely a select group that gets it," said Dr. Sharon Chekijian, assistant professor of emergency medicine in Yale University School of Medicine.

Also at risk of exposure are those without a place to stay, and an official at least one local homeless shelter said traffic has been steady during this latest dip in temperatures. Staff at Bridgeport Rescue Mission have put out additional beds in anticipation that more people will need a place to stay at night than usual, said Linda Casey, director of development and strategic planning at the mission. Though the mission doesn't technically have a daytime shelter, people have been allowed to linger at the shelter over the past few days because of the weather. "They can come in and have water and coffee and have a warm place to be," Casey said.

But a chill in the bones isn't the only health concern posed by the bitter cold. Doctors all warned about carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be caused by people using "alternative" heating sources, such as stoves.

Another, less obvious, winter weather health scourge is the flu. Ferrigno said he's seen an uptick in flu-like illness in recent days, which he attributes to the fact that people are likely spending more time huddled together this frigid winter, allowing germs to mingle and spread at will.

Hiraman agreed that cold snaps like this are a breeding ground for communicable illnesses. "That's definitely something to be concerned about, especially when you have a bunch of people together in an office building," he said.

Prolonged cold can harm the psyche as well as the body, especially since winter is a prime time for seasonal affective disorder. That's condition that's prevalent in the winter, particularly in the Northeast, when scarce sunlight can negatively affect people's emotional state.

"These periods can have a strong effect on people and their moods," said Dr. Jeremy Barowsky, psychiatrist and director of addiction medicine at Greenwich Hospital. "It affects the way people engage socially and occupationally. It can cause people to really, really withdraw."

Those feelings can be exacerbated when people are cooped up indoors during prolonged cold, he said. One way to help boost the mood is to get out, preferably during warmer periods of the day, to get some exercise or just interact with others. Also, Barowsky said, basic self-care is essentially during times like this. "Getting eight hours of sleep is a good way to help people fight depression" stemming from the cold or shorter daylight hours..

Staff writer Frank Juliano contributed to this report.

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