Older adults can lose body heat fast—faster than when they were young. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to be aware of getting cold. A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem before an older person even knows what’s happening. Doctors call this serious problem hypothermia.
What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature colder than 95°F can cause many health problems, such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.
Being outside in the cold, or even being in a very cold house, can lead to hypothermia. Try to stay away from cold places, and pay attention to how cold it is where you are. You can take steps to lower your chance of getting hypothermia.
What Are the Warning Signs of Hypothermia?
Sometimes it is hard to tell if a person has hypothermia. Look for clues. Is the house very cold? Is the person not dressed for cold weather? Is the person speaking slower than normal and having trouble keeping his or her balance?
Watch for the signs of hypothermia in yourself, too. You might become confused if your body temperature gets very low. Talk to your family and friends about the warning signs so they can look out for you.
Early signs of hypothermia:
- Cold feet and hands
- Puffy or swollen face
- Pale skin
- Shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver)
- Slower than normal speech or slurring words
- Acting sleepy
- Being angry or confused
- Later signs of hypothermia:
- Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
- Stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
- Slow heartbeat
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Blacking out or losing consciousness
Call 911 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.
What to do after you call 911:
- Try to move the person to a warmer place.
- Wrap the person in a warm blanket, towels, or coats—whatever is handy. Even your own body warmth will help. Lie close, but be gentle.
- Give the person something warm to drink, but avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine, such as regular coffee.
- Do not rub the person’s legs or arms.
- Do not try to warm the person in a bath.
- Do not use a heating pad.
- Hypothermia and the Emergency Room
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.
Frostbite occurs when your body experiences damage to the skin that can go all the way down to the bone. Not surprisingly, extreme cold can cause frostbite. It is most likely to occur on body parts farthest away from your heart. Common places include your nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. In severe cases, frostbite can result in loss of limbs. People with heart disease and other circulation problems are at a higher risk.
Cover Up! All parts of your body should be covered when you go out in the cold. If your skin turns red or dark or starts hurting, go inside right away.
Know the Warning Signs of frostbite: skin that’s white or ashy or grayish-yellow; skin that feels hard or waxy; numbness. If you think you or someone else has frostbite, call for medical help immediately.
If Frostbite Occurs run the affected area under warm (not hot) water.
Keep Warm Inside
Living in a cold house, apartment, or other building can cause hypothermia. In fact, hypothermia can happen to someone in a nursing home or group facility if the rooms are not kept warm enough. If someone you know is in a group facility, pay attention to the inside temperature and to whether that person is dressed warmly enough.
People who are sick may have special problems keeping warm. Do not let it get too cold inside and dress warmly. Even if you keep your temperature between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, your home or apartment may not be warm enough to keep you safe. This is a special problem if you live alone because there is no one else to feel the chilliness of the house or notice if you are having symptoms of hypothermia.
Here are some tips for keeping warm while you’re inside:
Set your heat at 68°F or higher. To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using. Close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms, and keep the basement door closed. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts.
Make sure your house isn’t losing heat through windows. Keep your blinds and curtains closed. If you have gaps around the windows, try using weather stripping or caulk to keep the cold air out.
Dress warmly on cold days even if you are staying in the house. Throw a blanket over your legs. Wear socks and slippers.
When you go to sleep, wear long underwear under your pajamas, and use extra covers. Wear a cap or hat.
Make sure you eat enough food to keep up your weight. If you don’t eat well, you might have less fat under your skin. Body fat helps you to stay warm.
Drink alcohol moderately, if at all. Alcoholic drinks can make you lose body heat.
Ask family or friends to check on you during cold weather. If a power outage leaves you without heat, try to stay with a relative or friend.
You may be tempted to warm your room with a space heater. But, some space heaters are fire hazards, and others can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has information on the use of space heaters. Read the following for more information: Reducing Fire Hazards for Portable Electric Heaters and Seven Highly Effective Portable Heater Safety Habits.
Bundle Up on Windy, Cold Days
A heavy wind can quickly lower your body temperature. Check the weather forecast for windy and cold days. On those days, try to stay inside or in a warm place. If you have to go out, wear warm clothes, and don’t stay out in the cold and wind for a long time.
Here are some other tips:
- Dress for the weather if you have to go out on chilly, cold, or damp days.
- Wear loose layers of clothing. The air between the layers helps to keep you warm.
- Put on a hat and scarf. You lose a lot of body heat when your head and neck are uncovered.
- Wear a waterproof coat or jacket if it’s snowy.
Illness, Medicines, and Cold Weather
Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm. Diabetes, thyroid problems, Parkinson’s disease, memory loss, and arthritis are problems that can make it harder for older adults to stay warm. Talk with your doctor about your health problems and how to prevent hypothermia.
Taking some medicines and not being active also can affect body heat. These include medicines you get from your doctor and those you buy over-the-counter. Ask your doctor if the medicines you take may affect body heat. Always talk with your doctor before you stop taking any medication.
Here are some topics to talk about with your doctor to stay safe in cold weather:
Ask your doctor about signs of hypothermia.
Talk to your doctor about any health problems and medicines that can make hypothermia a special problem for you. Your doctor can help you find ways to prevent hypothermia.
Ask about safe ways to stay active even when it’s cold outside.
Injury While Shoveling Snow
It’s one of the evils of winter – snow shoveling. Just make sure that if you choose to shovel, you take some precautions. Remember, when it’s cold outside, your heart works double time to keep you warm. Strenuous activities like shoveling snow may put too much strain on your heart, especially if you have heart disease. Shoveling can also be dangerous if you have problems with balance or have “thin bones” (osteoporosis).
Ask Your Healthcare Provider whether shoveling or other work in the snow is safe for you.
It is easy to slip and fall in the winter, especially in icy and snowy conditions.
Precautions to Take
Make sure steps and walkways are clear before you walk. Be especially careful if you see wet pavements that could be iced over.
Clear away snow and salt your walkways at home, or hire someone to do it.
Wear boots with non-skid soles – this will prevent you from slipping.
If you use a cane, replace the rubber tip before it is worn smooth.
Consider an ice pick-like attachment that fits onto the end of the cane for additional traction.
Fires and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
During the winter months, it is common to use the fireplace or other heating sources, such as natural gas, kerosene and other fuels. Unless fireplaces, wood and gas stoves and gas appliances are properly vented, cleaned, and used, they can leak dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide—a deadly gas that you cannot see or smell. These and other appliances, such as space heaters, can also be fire hazards.
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
If you think you may have carbon monoxide poisioning, get into fresh air and get medical care immediately.
Call an inspector to have your chimneys and flues inspected – preferred annually.
Open a window (when using a kerosene stove) –just a crack will do.
Place smoke detectors and battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors in strategic places – especially in areas where you use fireplaces, wood stoves, or kerosene heaters.
Make sure space heaters are at least 3 feet away from anything that might catch fire, such as curtains, bedding and furniture.
Never try to heat your home using a gas stove, charcoal grill, or other stove not made for home heating.
If there is a fire, don't try to put it out. Leave the house and call 911.
Accidents While Driving
Adults 65 and older are involved in more car accidents per mile driven than those in nearly all other age groups. Winter is an especially important time to be vigilant when driving because road conditions and weather may not be optimal.
Precautions to Take
“Winterize” your car before the bad weather hits! This means having the antifreeze, tires, and windshield wipers checked and changed if necessary.
Remember your cell phone when you drive in bad weather, and always let someone know where you are going and when you should be expected back.
Avoid driving on icy roads, and be especially careful driving on overpasses or bridges. Consider alternate routes, even if it means driving a longer distance, if the more direct route is less safe. Often bigger roads are cleared of snow better than smaller roads.
Stock your car with basic emergency supplies such as:
- First aid kid
- Extra warm clothes
- Booster cables
- Windshield scraper
- Rock salt or a bag of sand or cat litter (in case your wheels get stuck)
- Water and dried food or canned food (with can opener!)
- Map (if traveling in new areas)
DISCLAIMER: This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other healthcare provider. Always consult your healthcare provider about your medications, symptoms, and health problems.