Hypothermia is a wintertime health risk that older adults should be mindful of. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s internal temperature drops abnormally low. Normal body temperature is 98.6 °F (37 °C) and hypothermia is classified when the body temperature is below 95 °F (35 °C). Seniors are more susceptible to hypothermia because they have a greater surface area to body weight ratio.
Seniors, in general, have lower body heat, as well as a slew of other conditions that increase their risk of both hypothermia and frostbite. For example, heart problems, thyroid problems, and even certain medications can all contribute to a heightened hypothermia risk.
Hypothermia dangers in older adults
Hypothermia is caused when the body’s temperature drops below normal. Frostbite occurs when a part of the body freezes.
Hypothermia may be hard to spot because it comes on quite slowly. When we are cold, our bodies begin to shiver in order to produce heat. On the other hand, shivering also stops the body from storing energy, so we begin to expel too much energy. Shivering is an early sign of hypothermia, which can be followed by disorientation, confusion, shallow breathing, slurred speech, feeling clumsy, drowsy, or forgetful, and having a slow, irregular heartbeat.
If the senior is alone, they can’t get to the phone and call for help, so the condition can have deadly consequences. The effects of hypothermia are worse in seniors with other health conditions, increasing their risk of developing other health complications, too.
Here’s what you can do to help a person with hypothermia:
- Be gentle as the person’s heartbeat may become irregular with sudden movements
- Get out of the cold
- Remove wet clothing
- Cover a person in blankets
- Monitor their breathing
- Share body heat
- Use warm, dry compresses
- Don’t directly apply heat
Other options administered by qualified medical professionals include blood rewarming using a hemodialysis machine, warm intravenous fluids, and airway rewarming using a humidifier.
There are a few measures you can take to avoid hypothermia:
- Stay warm in cold weather dressed in layers
- Stay dry in the cold
- Don’t overexert yourself, as it can cause sweating and release more energy
- Don’t drink alcohol prior to going outdoors
- If you’re a senior, avoid spending long hours outdoors – stay indoors as long as possible
- Pay attention to wind chill warnings
If you know any seniors, don’t forget to check up on them. Make sure they are staying indoors and are warm – especially if they have a disability.
Hypothermia can be life-threatening, so it’s important to follow these preventative tips to ensure you don’t succumb to the winter cold.