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Older adults at risk for hypothermia in cold, winter weather

Person_snowIt was sad to learn Monday that two people were found dead in their cars after the big snowstorm that hit the East Coast over the weekend.

Most Americans aged 65 years and older aren’t going to face the dangers of hypothermia in their cars during a snowstorm. However, they can be vulnerable to hypothermia because their body's response to cold can be diminished by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, some medicines including over-the-counter cold remedies, and aging. As a result, hypothermia can develop in older adults after even relatively mild exposure to cold weather or a small drop in temperature.

When the temperature gets too cold or the body's heat production decreases, hypothermia occurs. Hypothermia is defined as having a core body temperature below 95 degrees.

Someone suffering from hypothermia may show one or more of the following signs: slowed or slurred speech, sleepiness or confusion, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, poor control over body movements or slow reactions, or a weak pulse. If you suspect hypothermia, or if you observe these symptoms, call 911.

To help older people avoid hypothermia, the National Institute on Aging offers the following tips:

  • 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. Also consider letting someone know you’re going outdoors and carry a fully charged cell phone. A hat is important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • Check with your doctor to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you’re taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
  • Make sure your home is warm enough. For older people, the temperature should be set to at least 68 degrees.
  • 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.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income families pay heating bills through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Applicants can call the National Energy Assistance Referral project at 866-674-6327, e-mail energy@ncat.org, or go to the LIHEAP website http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/resource/liheap-brochures.

For additional information, see “Stay Safe in Cold Weather,” the fact sheet “Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard,” and a fact sheet in Spanish “La hipotermia: un peligro del clima frío.”

These publications are available on the NIA website or by calling NIA’s at 800-222-2225.

Copyright 2016, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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