Texas Cold Snap Brings Unanticipated Maladies

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Austin’s severe cold snap in mid-February brought misery to residents who were suddenly faced with water and power cuts, freezing temperatures, and food and water shortages.

It also exposed those who lost heat or battled icy conditions to cold weather maladies.  For some, the unexpected cold resulted in slips and falls,  injuries from shoveling, vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, illness, or even frostbite.

Snow began falling late February 14 and continued the next day, with more than 6 inches recorded.  Snow remained on the ground for five straight days and the city experienced sub-freezing temperatures.  

Although Austin typically has mild winter temperatures, the cold and heavy snow were not unprecedented.

January is Austin’s coldest month, with normal highs in the low 60s and lows in the low 40s, according to US government data.  Sub-freezing temperatures occur on average about 19 days per year, with the coldest low recorded January 31, 1949 at -2 degrees. The heaviest snowstorm occurred on Nov 23, 1937, with 11 inches of snow, and only three other snowfalls on record were 6 inches or more.

Amid the snow and icy cold in mid-February, emergency rooms took in dozens of patients who suffered frostbite.  Skin  exposed to freezing temperatures can become damaged, with severe cases extending all the way down to muscles and bones, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice diagnostic center.

Numbness and white or grayish skin color are signs of frostbite, as well as skin that feels waxy or firm.

Even brief exposure to cold can cause frostbite, especially to kids, who lose heat from their skin faster than adults.

An early warning sign of frostbite is the less serious frostnip, which leaves skin red and tingly or numb.

Frostbite should be treated by medical workers as soon as possible.   First aid can be started at home by gently immersing the skin in lukewarm water for no more than 20 minutes and keeping the victim warm.  Skin should never be massaged or thawed near a heating source.

Residents who lost their heating may have experienced abnormally low body temperatures, or hypothermia, with their body losing heat faster than could be produced.  Even mild cold for a long period can disrupt body temperatures.

That can impact brain function, making it difficult to think or move properly.  Early symptoms include shivering, fatigue, and confusion.

Help a victim by wrapping him in blankets or layers of clothing, especially around the head and neck, and providing warm beverages.  Severe cases should go to the hospital.

Austin emergency workers also responded to dozens of falls on icy sidewalks and roads.

Injuries from falls can be most risky for the elderly, who may end up in a nursing home because of a broken hip or other bone.  Falls can also cause traumatic brain injury to the elderly, which can be fatal.

If you fall, it’s best to lie still for a few moments and assess how you are feeling to prevent further injury.  If you think injuries are serious, ask for help to call emergency workers.

If a fall has not caused serious injury, try to get up slowly by rolling to one side and using arms and legs to stand.  Apply ice to mild injuries to prevent swelling.

Some desperate residents who lost power turned to barbecue grills, wood furnaces, car heaters, and other energy sources for warmth and cooking.  Unfortunately, those devices can release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, an odorless gas created by burning fuel that can result in poisoning or death.

Inhaling carbon monoxide interferes with your body’s oxygen use and may damage your brain and other organs.  There are many symptoms of poisoning, including headache, weakness, nausea and vomiting, and disorientation. 

If you suspect poisoning,  get fresh air quickly and seek medical treatment.  Carbon monoxide alarms should be installed in the home to detect unsafe levels of the gas.

The lower temperatures and stressful conditions also left residents more vulnerable to illness.  Viruses and germs spread more easily in cold weather and among people who are cooped up indoors and in close contact.  That meant more colds and coughs, bronchitis, and flu and pneumonia, amid the already difficult conditions of the covid-19 pandemic.

Some who did get sick faced a challenging recovery, due to a lack of home heating and clean water for drinking,  bathing, cooking, and washing hands.   Some residents were not even able to access medicine and nutritious food.

Extreme weather events  are unusual but not unprecedented in Texas, and may occur more frequently as the climate changes.

Given the dire situation in February, some residents might consider stocking up on basic emergency supplies in the event of another crisis, including bottled water, food and first aid supplies, and alternate heating sources.

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