Did you know that a healthy adult can develop hypothermia in temperatures as high as 50°F?
Fifty degrees doesn’t seem very dangerous, does it? Most of us could comfortably go outside without a jacket in that sort of weather (at least for a few minutes).
During the winter season, though (even when the weather is abnormally warm, like it has been so far this year in New Jersey), prolonged exposure to cooler air can cause the body temperature to drop below normal – a condition known as hypothermia.
At older ages, and especially among the elderly, the dangers of hypothermia become greater and even a small drop in temperature can lead to serious consequences, including death.
Here’s what you need to know:
Why Are Older Adults at Higher Risk for Hypothermia?
Anyone can get hypothermia and most people will recover from a mild case with little to no side effects. For people aged 65 and older, however, the risks are much greater? Why?
- The elderly have a lesser ability to regulate and control body temperature
- Older adults have a more difficult time sensing environmental cold
- Certain medications and illnesses can make it more difficult to regulate body temperature
- Poor nutrition/not eating enough can leave older adults more vulnerable to the cold
- Older adults have a diminished sense of thirst and are often dehydrated, even in winter
- Many older adults are on a tight budget and can’t afford to properly heat their homes
Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults
Despite a predisposition to being more susceptible to cold, it IS possible for older adults to stay safe, healthy, and comfortable during the winter months. Here are some tips for keeping warm:
- Maintain a temperature of at least 68 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the house.
- To save on heating bills: Close off rooms you are not using (close vents and shut doors in these rooms), keep the basement doors closed, make sure blinds and curtains are tightly shut, and consider using weather stripping on windows.
- Dress warmly on cold days, even if you are staying in the house.
- When you go to bed, wear warm pajamas, socks, and a hat. Consider investing in flannel sheets and extra blankets.
- Make sure you eat enough to maintain body weight – less fat under the skin makes it more difficult to maintain temperature.
- Avoid drinking alcohol
- If going outside, make sure to dress appropriately in layers of warm, light clothing, an appropriate coat, gloves, hat, scarf, and waterproof shoes. Avoid going out in excessively cold or stormy weather.
- Ask friends or relatives to check in on you regularly during cold weather months.
Tip: If you are going to heat your home with a space heater, read Reducing Fire Hazards for Portable Electric Heaters and Seven Highly Effective Portable Heater Safety Habits from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It is important to understand that many portable heaters can pose a fire or carbon monoxide risk.
Warning Signs of Hypothermia
The symptoms of hypothermia can mimic many other conditions and can be difficult to pick out – in yourself or someone else.
Sometimes, the best indicators come from the environment: Is the house cold? Is the person not dressed appropriately for the weather? Are their shoes or clothing wet?
If there are no clear giveaways, look for these common signs:
- Cold hands and feet
- Pale skin
- Puffy or swollen face
- Shivering (not always present)
- Acting sleepy
- Slower than normal speech or slurred words
- Being angry or confused
More serious symptoms may include:
- Slow heartrate
- Shallow breathing
- Moving slowly or being clumsy
- Losing consciousness
What to do if Hypothermia is Suspected
If you suspect that you or someone else has hypothermia, call 911 immediately.
Until help arrives:
- Move the victim to a warm, dry place (if possible)
- Limit movements to only those that are necessary – do not rub or massage the person
- If their clothes are wet, remove them and cover the person with warm, dry blankets or coats
- If they are conscious, give them a warm beverage to drink
- DON’T apply direct heat (hot water, heating pads, etc.) as it can damage the skin or, worse, cause irregular heartbeat