Hypothermia: A serious risk for the elderly

Hypothermia can be a serious risk in the elderly, especially during the winter season. Learn how to protect yourself and others against hypothermia.

As the winter months move in, the temperature is dropping fast. This year, it appears the winter is starting early. As we age, the body does not adjust to the cold as easily as when we were young. One of the risks of winter is the cold temperatures that can lower the internal temperature of the body. As the body ages, sometimes blood does not circulate as well through the veins, often leading to cold hands or cold feet. If a person is living in a cool to cold climate, the risk of hypothermia increases.

Hypothermia is when the body temperature drops to a dangerous level. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Only a few degrees lower, such as 95 degrees Fahrenheit, can become dangerous. Lower body temperatures can lead to an irregular heartbeat which can cause heart problems and death.

How would you know if someone was suffering from hypothermia? Michigan State University Extension says that there are signs a person can look for. Signs may include confusion or sleepiness, slowed and slurred speech, shallow breathing and a weak pulse. A person may also experience poor control over their body movements, slow reactions, shivering or no shivering, with stiff arms or legs.

According to the NIA, if you find someone who you think might be experiencing hypothermia, take their temperature. Shake the thermometer down so it reads below the normal body temperature. If the reading doesn’t go above 96 degrees Fahrenheit, call for emergency help or get the person to an emergency room. The hospital will work to raise the person’s internal temperature and monitor the person’s overall health including their heart rate.

If you need to care for someone whose body temperature has dropped, keep the person as warm and dry as possible. Wrap the person in blankets, coats or whatever warm material you can find. Give the person something warm to drink, but avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.

If you must go out in cold weather, remember to be prepared. Carry an emergency bag either with you or in the car. In the kit, include a small food source, a small candle and matches, hand and feet warmers, a pair of warm gloves and a hat, and if possible a warm blanket. Remember to dress in warm layers in cold weather. Two or three layers of loose clothing help to trap the body heat inside. Wear hats and gloves and boots that are insulated.

Hypothermia can occur while a person is inside a building as well. If you have a relative in a nursing home or group facility, make sure they are warm enough. The building may be cool or drafty, potentially causing people to be cold. Observe whether the person is dressed properly and has blankets if they need one. If an elderly person is living alone at home, check on them. The home thermostat should be set at 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If a person is using a space heater, check that it is meant to be used indoors and it is in good working order. Some heaters can be a fire hazard or produce carbon monoxide which can’t be seen or smelled.

As the cold weather moves in on Michigan, be prepared and stay warm.

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