Almost everyone knows about winter dangers such as broken bones from falls on icy steps, sidewalks or streets. But cold weather also can cause an important, less obvious danger that can affect older people. Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia, which can be deadly if not treated quickly. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has some advice to help older people avoid hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when a person's body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time. With advancing age, the body's ability to endure long periods of exposure to cold is lowered.
Older people also are at risk for hypothermia because their body's response to cold can be diminished by certain illnesses such as diabetes and some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. In addition, older adults may be less active and generate less body heat. As a result, they can develop hypothermia even after exposure to relatively mild cold weather or a small drop in temperature.
The best way to identify someone with hypothermia is to look for confusion or sleepiness, slowed or slurred speech, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, weak pulse or low blood pressure, poor control over body movements or slow reactions. If you suspect that someone is suffering from the cold and you have a thermometer available, take his or her temperature. If it's 96 degrees or lower, call 911 for emergency help.
The NIA 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.
Because heating costs are high, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income families pay their heating bills. For more information, contact the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (1-866-674-6327) or the Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116).
The NIA has free information about hypothermia. To order the fact sheet, Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard, or the brochure, Stay Safe in Cold Weather, call toll free 1-800-222-2225. Hipotermia: El Peligro de las Bajas Temperaturas is also available. These and other free publications on healthy aging can be downloaded from the NIA Web site at <www.nia.nih.gov>.