|Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Risk for Older
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
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, 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
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
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
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.
The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research
on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older
people. For more information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers
and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic,
clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates
the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.
For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.