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Seasonal Health and Well-Being

Hypothermia: How to Avoid This Cold-Weather Menace

Exposure to winter cold can pose risks for older adults and those with chronic medical conditions. Older adults can lose body temperature quickly, and sometimes older people have trouble recognizing a drop in body temperature.

Severe circumstances like those can cause hypothermia, a dangerous drop in core body temperature. And it’s important to remember that hypothermia can occur indoors as well. Older adults can lose body heat quickly, and changes in the body as we age can make it harder to recognize a drop in body temperature. The result can be a serious condition called hypothermia.

Older adults are especially vulnerable 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. For an older person, a body temperature of 95°F or lower can cause many health problems, such as heart rhythm disturbances, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.

Be on the lookout for warning signs such as slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, a weak pulse, or a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. If you think someone has the warning signs for hypothermia, call 911 right away and try to move the person to a warmer place.

fireplace on cold night

Here are some tips from the National Institute on Aging to avoid such dangers:

When going outside in the cold, wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens to prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.

Make sure your home is warm enough.

If possible, let others know when you’re planning to spend time outdoors, and carry a fully charged cellphone.

Make sure your home is warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 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 and wear a hat or cap indoors.

States, territories, tribes, and tribal organizations 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 in a brochure “Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults,” and a fact sheet in Spanish, “La hipotermia: un peligro del clima frío.” You can find these and other free publications on healthy aging on the NIA website. You can also order free copies by calling NIA’s toll-free number 1-800-222-2225.

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