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.
What Are the Causes of Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is caused by the body losing heat at a faster pace than it is produced. This most likely occurs when being outdoors and exposed to cold temperatures. Being exposed to cold temperatures doesn’t necessarily trigger hypothermia, but rather being ill-equipped to handle the colder temperatures.
Hypothermia may be triggered by not wearing warm enough clothing, staying outdoors in the cold for prolonged periods of time, being unable to remove wet clothing or move to a warmer area, falling into water, and living in a home with poor heating or too much air conditioning.
Risk Factors of Hypothermia
Your risk of hypothermia increases if you are exhausted as your tolerance to the cold reduces, you are of older age or very young, if you have mental problems which interfere with judgment and decision making, if you use alcohol or drugs, if you have certain medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, anorexia, or poor nutrition, and if you are on certain medications which interfere with the body’s internal temperature.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering; slurred speech or mumbling; slow, shallow breathing; weak pulse; clumsiness or loss of coordination; drowsiness or low energy; confusion or memory loss; and bright red colored skin.
Symptoms appear gradually, and patients suffering from hypothermia often are not aware due to the gradual onset. Furthermore, confusion can impair self-awareness.
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.