The cold wave gripping the Washington metropolitan areaas though it were northern New England has been associated with at least one fatal heart attack, another heart attack, numerous asthma attacks, and has caused at least three cases of frostbite and literally hundreds of broken bones and sprains - just since last Friday.
That litany of cold-induced illness and conditions includes three which Washington-area residents, because of their lack of familiarity with this weather, normally might not think about. But they comprise its most serious threats - heart attacks, attacks of such lung diseases as asthma and emphysema and frostible.
When most persons think of heart attacks and cold weather together, they think of attacks brought on by too vigorous a bout of snow shoveling. But the cold itself can trigger a heart attack, according to Dr. Gerry Bristow, who has a good working familiarity with cold weather and the medical problems associated with it.
Bristow works at the Health Sciences Center, a large medical center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, a cold city. It is a city where the average daily high this past week was 11 BELOW zero, and the daily low was 27 degrees below.
"Individuals who suffer from chronic obstructive lung diseases (like asthma and emphysema) have particularly constricted lungs when exposed to cold air," Bristow said. "We see a lot of people whose condition gets much worse when it gets down around zero, he said.
"These people are well advised to stay out of the cold," said Bristow, who added that while he and his colleagues see and increase in lung distress when the temperature plummets to zero or below, Washington-area residents with lung disease might run into trouble at slightly higher temperatures because their systems are not adapted to the cold.
In Manitoba, said Bristow, "they've even devised a mask that's worn over the nose and mouth and warms the air before you breath it.
"The same problem applies to heart attacks," he added. The cold rushing "through the wind pipe can constrict the coronary arteries" and cause heart attacks, he said. "The old guys and gals here with their chronic lung (diseases) know what happens in the cold. But you have a cold wave in Washington and you aren't prepared for this and you go out and get hit by the cold air and wham! you have a heart attack. Here they're used to it, living with this damn climate so long.
Frostibite is another problems Washington area residents have to worry about now for the first time in years.
According to Bristow, such extremities as the ears, fingers and exposed cheeks can become frostibittten if they are exposed for about a half hour when the temperature is zero.
"We see a lot of frostible that results in a whole spectrum of injuries from first degree to third degree, like burns," said Bristow.
First-degree frostible is generally marked by a redness in the affected area, and will clear itself up if the person gets out of the cold and into a warm area.
Second-degree frostibite is much like a burn, and results in blistering and kills the top layers of skin. This type of frostibite is treated much like a burn.
Third-degree frostbite is far more serious. The effected area turns black, and it is often necessary to amputate the finger, ear or limb that is damaged.
In International Falls, Minn., typically the coldest spot in the continental U.S., there has been "one of the worst Januarys in man's memory," according to Dr. Frederick Walter, who's been in practice in that town since 1948.
Yet despite the intense cold - it was expected to hit 25 below last night at International Falls and a high of zero today - "We haven't had any serious case of frostbite, where you'd hospitalize somebody, in 10 years. If you're born here," said Walter, "it doesn't take you long to figure out the laws of survival.