Trapped in an icebox: The chill of winter isolation - (11/19/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Mr. Miller was on the phone, requesting refills. At 77, he had difficulty getting to the pharmacy in the winter. In fact, this man had problems getting anywhere during the cold months. To make sure Mr. Miller does get his medication, the pharmacist will deliver them himself. 

Many people love winter: Skiing, snowboarding, hot cocoa, a roaring fireplace, a raging blizzard. Some individuals find the winter solace the perfect time to ponder, write, and read. During the frigid months, people close their windows, hunker down, and crank up the heat. Studies have revealed that introverts – people who tend to be loners – prefer the winter because they can be alone. In contrast, extroverts hate the cold unless they are ice skating, hunting down an innocent animal, or indulging in some other more sociable activity. However, electing to stay indoors is different from having no choice.  

Some older people or people who have disabilities find overcoming the harshness of frigid weather to be a challenge. Driving becomes hazardous. The shorter days mean darkness settles in earlier. Related health issues such as loss of hearing or vision, incontinence, or balance issues can heighten this sense of isolation during winter. 

Winter is also a time to make one's terrible habits ever worse. Some people believe that alcohol will make one feel warmer. The pharmacist remembers his mother interrogating his grandmother as to where all the whiskey went. "I just brought you a big bottle," Mom would say. "The house is cold," my grandma would reply. In truth, drinking alcohol in the winter makes one colder. When one heads outdoors after drinking too much, one's core temperature can drop radically. Booze makes one feel more chilled physically and can lead to hypothermia – a dangerously low body temperature that can result in unconsciousness. 

Falling on the ice is the cause of broken bones, and head and spinal injuries. Lying on the driveway with a significant injury in the subzero cold without anybody knowing you are there can be fatal. Even if you are only walking the dog or taking out the trash, shove your cell phone into your jacket and wear the correct shoes – not your bedroom slippers. Medical alert systems can save lives. Many have fall detectors that are activated when one takes a spill.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), winter weather kills more than twice as many Americans as excessive summer heat. Based on death certificate information from 2006 to 2010, the CDC discovered that about 2,000 US residents succumbed due to weather-related causes each of those years. The CDC report attributed 63% of these deaths to exposure to excessive cold, hypothermia, or both. Being indoors all winter – and especially if one is prone to loneliness – can augment other poor habits, such as smoking. With the heat on and the windows shut, no fresh air is circulating throughout the house. Hence, one is subject to respiratory illnesses, from bronchitis to pneumonia.

The pharmacist will drive Mr. Miller's meds to his home and do a quick check to see if he is okay and if he needs anything else. Also, is the heat on? Does he have food? Are his sidewalks clear of snow? And, if any time is left, he will sit down with Mr. Miller over a cup of coffee and keep him company for a spell.  

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at 

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