Avoiding Hypothermia – NIH Cautions Older Adults to Stay Safe This Winter

During the winter, it is important for everyone, especially older adults and people with chronic medical conditions, to be aware of hypothermia. Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature that may lead to many health problems, such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, has some tips to help lessen some of the dangers.

Older people are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their body’s response to cold can be diminished by underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, and certain medications, including over-the-counter cold remedies. Hypothermia is generally defined as having a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and can occur when the outside environment gets too cold or the body’s heat production decreases. Hypothermia can develop in older adults even after relatively short exposure to cold weather or a small drop in temperature.

Someone may be suffering from hypothermia if he or she has been exposed to low temperatures and shows 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 someone is suffering from hypothermia, get them out of the cold if possible and call 911 right away for emergency help. Remove any wet clothes and cover the person with a coat or blanket.

Here are a few tips to help prevent hypothermia:

  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
  • 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. A hat is particularly important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wear layers of warm loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • Make sure your home is warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older people.
  • To stay warm at home in cold weather, 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.

To Learn More

Energy costs may discourage older people from keeping their houses warm enough in the winter. To help, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income homeowners and renters meet home heating needs. Individuals interested in applying for energy assistance should call their local or state Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program agency or visit www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/liheap.

The NIA also has free information about hypothermia. To order the fact sheet “Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard” or the brochure “Stay Safe in Cold Weather,” call (800) 222-2225. The fact sheet is also available in Spanish: “Hipotermia: El Peligro de las Bajas Temperaturas.” These and other free publications on healthy aging can also be downloaded from the NIA website at www.nia.nih.gov.