Monroe County Seniors’ Express Times
We are all aware of the winter dangers of sprains and broken bones from slipping on icy walkways and streets, as well as the risks of shoveling snow. But cold weather can also cause an important, less obvious danger that can affect seniors. Older people are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when a person's body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time. As people get older, their bodies become a little less efficient at regulating heat. When the body temperature dips below 94 degrees, hypothermia occurs.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. Severe hypothermia can be fatal. Symptoms of hypothermia include 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, and poor control over body movements or slow reactions.
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. If you are caring for elderly people, be aware that they may not be able to tell you they feel cold. They may also not be able to simply reach for a sweater for blanket, or they may be concerned about the cost of turning up the heat.
An older person is more susceptible to hypothermia because their response to cold can be weakened by certain illnesses like diabetes, underactive thyroid, and heart disease. The risk for hypothermia also increases for seniors on certain medications, including over the counter cold remedies. The National Institute on Aging has information to help you prevent hypothermia. Here are a few tips:
Wear several layers of loose clothing when it is cold. The layers will trap warm air between them. Tight clothing can keep blood from flowing freely and lead to loss of body heat.
Wear a hat, scarf, gloves or mittens, and warm clothes when you go outside in cold weather. A significant amount of your body heat can be lost through your head, and hands and feet are the first body parts to get cold.
To keep warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.
Make sure your home is warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can trigger hypothermia in older people.
Check with your doctor to see if any medications (prescription or over the counter) you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia. Don’t forget that you need to stay warm when it’s cold outside. Remember that this means knowing if weather forecasts are for very cold temperatures or for windy and cold weather. You lose more body heat on a windy day than a calm day. Homes or apartments that are not heated enough, even with a temperature of 60° F to 65° F, can lead to illness. This is a special problem if you live alone because there is no one else to comment on the chilliness of the house or to notice if you are having symptoms of hypothermia. Set your thermostat for at least 68° F to 70° F. If a power outage leaves you without heat, try to stay with a relative or friend.