Recognize and treat hypothermia by knowing who is vulnerable

Hypothermia is a serious medical condition caused by abnormally low body temperature.

During winter months, we often associate hypothermia with dangerous situations such as falling through ice, and the loss of body heat when immersed in very cold water. But hypothermia can happen anywhere and some older people can have a mild form of it and may not know it. Michigan State University Extension says that low body temperature affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well.

Even a few degrees below a normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit can be dangerous by causing an irregular heartbeat that could lead to heart problems and death. Some health conditions make it more difficult to stay warm enough, such as low thyroid hormone or diabetes, which may keep blood from flowing normally. The National Institute on Aging suggests that shivering alone may or may not signal hypothermia. To know if someone has hypothermia, look for the ‘umbles’—stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles—these show that the cold is a problem. Check for:

  • § Confusion or sleepiness
  • § Slowed, slurred speech, or shallow breathing
  • § Weak pulse
  • § Change in behavior or in the way a person looks
  • § A lot of shivering or no shivering; stiffness in the arms or legs
  • § Poor control over body movements or slow reactions

To determine if someone has hypothermia, be sure to use a thermometer that has been set to its lowest point. If the reading does not rise above 96 degrees Fahrenheit, call for emergency help, which in many areas is done by calling 9-1-1. While waiting for medical attention, keep the person warm and dry and wrap them in a blanket or coat. Warm the center of the body first, even using your own body warmth with close contact to the trunk area. Giving warm fluids to drink can help increase body temperature, but should not include alcohol or caffeine. Never try to give beverages to someone who is unconscious.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, victims of hypothermia are often older people with inadequate food, clothing or heating. Even if you keep your temperature between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, your home or apartment may not be warm enough to keep you safe. Those who live alone should keep their thermostat set at 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and if you have a power outage that leaves you without heat, try to stay with a relative or friend. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to be aware of getting cold. Some medicines can increase the risk of accidental hypothermia, so ask your doctor how the medicines you take affect body heat. These may include drugs used to treat anxiety, depression, or nausea and also some over-the-counter cold remedies.

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