Injury Prevention & Treatment

Watch Out for Hypothermia: The "Indoor Cold"

Almost everyone knows about winter dangers for older people such as broken bones from falls on ice or breathing problems caused by cold air. But not everyone knows that cold weather can also lower the temperature inside your body. This drop in body temperature is called hypothermia, and it can be deadly if not treated quickly. Hypothermia can happen anywhere—not just outside and not just in northern states. In fact, some older people can have a mild form of hypothermia if the temperature in their home is too cool.

What Are The Signs Of Hypothermia?

When you think about being cold, you probably think of shivering. That is one way the body stays warm when it gets cold. But, shivering alone does not mean you have hypothermia.

How do you know if someone has hypothermia? Look for the “umbles“—stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles—these show that the cold is a problem. Check for:

Confusion or sleepiness

Slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing

Weak pulse

Change in behavior or in the way a person looks

A lot of shivering or no shivering; stiffness in the arms or legs

Poor control over body movements or slow reactions

Taking Action

A normal body temperature is 98.6 °F. A few degrees lower, for example, 95 °F, can be dangerous. It may cause an irregular heartbeat leading to heart problems and death.

If you think someone could have hypothermia, use a thermometer to take his or her temperature. Make sure you shake the thermometer so it starts below its lowest point. When you take the temperature, if the reading doesn’t rise above 96 °F, call for emergency help. In many areas, that means calling 911.

While you are waiting for help to arrive, keep the person warm and dry. Try and move him or her to a warmer place. Wrap the person in blankets, towels, coats—whatever is handy. Even your own body warmth will help. Lie close, but be gentle. Give the person something warm to drink but stay away from alcohol or caffeinated drinks, like regular coffee.

The only way to tell for sure that someone has hypothermia is to use a special thermometer that can read very low body temperatures. Most hospitals have these thermometers. In the emergency room, doctors will warm the person’s body from inside out. For example, they may give the person warm fluids directly by using an IV. Recovery depends on how long the person was exposed to the cold and his or her general health.

How Do I Stay Safe?

Try to stay away from cold places. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to be aware of getting cold.

You may not always be able to warm yourself. Pay attention to how cold it is where you are.

Check the weather forecasts for windy and cold weather. Try to stay inside or in a warm place on cold and windy days. If you have to go out, wear warm clothes including a hat and gloves. A waterproof coat or jacket can help you stay warm if it’s cold and snowy.