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

Winter’s frigid temperatures bring some particular risks for older adults and people with chronic conditions. Older adults can lose body heat faster than when they were younger, and changes in their bodies can make it more difficult to be aware of a drop in body temperature. The result can be a dangerous condition called hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Even a small drop in temperature and short exposure to cold weather can develop into hypothermia. Some warnings signs of hypothermia include slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, or a weak pulse.

Older adults are especially liable to hypothermia because their bodies’ response to cold can be diminished by chronic medical conditions and by use of some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. If you suspect hypothermia, or if you observe these symptoms, call 911.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, has some advice to help older adults prevent this dangerous condition:

  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist 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. Set the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older adults.
  • 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; wear a hat or cap indoors.
  • When going outside in the cold, it is important to wear a hat, along with a scarf, because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head.   Gloves or mittens can help prevent loss of body heat through your hands. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • Let someone know when you are going outdoors and carry a fully charged cellphone.

States, territories, tribes, and tribal organization may be able to help eligible households pay for home heating and cooling costs. People interested in applying for assistance should contact their local or state social services agency.

The NIA has free information about hypothermia available in its brochure, “Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults.” at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cold-weather-safety-older-adults. A fact sheet in Spanish is also available. These and other free publications on healthy aging can be downloaded from the NIA website (http://www.nia.nih.gov/) or by calling NIA’s toll-free number: 1-800-222-2225.

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