olderwoman in winter
Senior Health

Hypothermia and Older Adults: Tips for Staying Safe in Cold Weather

The cold truth about hypothermia is that Americans aged 65 years and older face this danger every winter. Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their body’s response to cold can be diminished by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, some medicines including over-the-counter cold remedies, and aging itself. As a result, hypothermia can develop in older adults after even relatively mild exposure to cold weather or a small drop in temperature.

These tips from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health will help older people avoid this dangerous cold-weather condition. When the temperature gets too cold or the body’s heat production decreases, hypothermia occurs. Hypothermia is defined as having a core body temperature below 95 degrees.

Someone suffering from hypothermia may show one or more of the following signs: slowed or slurred speech, sleepiness or confusion, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, poor control over body movements or slow reactions, or a weak pulse. If you suspect hypothermia, or if you observe these symptoms, call 911.

Here are a few tips to help older people avoid hypothermia:

  • When going outside in the cold, it is important to wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens to prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. Also consider letting someone know you’re going outdoors and carry a fully charged cellphone.  A hat is particularly important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • Check with your doctor to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
  • Make sure your home is warm enough. Some experts suggest that, for older people, the temperature be set to at least 68 degrees.
  • To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income families pay heating bills through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Applicants can call the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) project at: 1-866-674-6327, e-mail energy@ncat.org (link sends e-mail) or go to the LIHEAP website http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/resource/liheap-brochures (link is external). NEAR is a free service providing information on where you can apply for help through LIHEAP. The Administration for Children and Families funds the Energy Assistance Referral hotline.

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