For Older Adults, Staying Safe in Cold Weather is Crucial

This post originally appeared on the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging blog. 

Two Young Girls Playing in Snow with GrandmaExposure to cold can have a greater impact as you age, because the body’s ability to regulate temperature and to sense cold may lessen with age. Older people are also more likely to have a medical condition that further affects temperature regulation, such as underactive thyroid, stroke, severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. Age-related factors make seniors more vulnerable to hypothermia (also known as cold stress), a serious health condition caused by excessive body heat loss from exposure to the cold.

Spending time outdoors in the elements – snow, rain, wind and frigid temperatures – can put you at risk for developing hypothermia very quickly. But danger can lurk indoors, too. Consistent indoor temperatures as mild as 60° to 65°F can cause symptoms, since this is well below the body’s normal temperature of 98°, says Sharon Congleton, RN, BSN, health promotion nurse supervisor at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA). (If you are having trouble paying for oil or gas to heat your home this winter, click here for resources to help.)

Those who don’t dress warmly enough; eat poorly; and/or take prescription medications for high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, poor circulation or sleeplessness may also be at risk.

To protect yourself, Congleton recommends following these guidelines:

  • Stay warm and dry, whether indoors or outdoors
  • Avoid exposure to snow, wind, rain and water/dampness
  • Dress warmly
  • Wear loose layers of clothing, especially woolens
  • Cover your head and neck with a hat and scarf
  • Wear gloves or mittens
  • Change socks and long underwear if they become damp or wet
  • Wear warm shoes and socks
  • Keep skin and clothing dry to lessen the chance of frostbite
  • Eat nutritious meals on a regular basis, especially a hot meal
  • Drink a lot of fluids

Watch for these danger signs

Shivering is usually the first symptom that your body temperature has started to drop, because it’s your body’s automatic attempt to warm itself. Signs and symptoms of mild hypothermia also include dizziness, hunger, nausea, increased heart rate and breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, and fatigue.

According to the Mayo Clinic, someone with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of his or her condition because the symptoms often begin gradually. If you begin to notice more severe signs in yourself or someone else, seek medical attention. As your body temperature drops, signs and symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia include:

  • Severe clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Confusion and poor decision-making, such as trying to remove warm clothes
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Lack of concern about one’s condition
  • Progressive loss of consciousness
  • Weak pulse
  • Slow, shallow breathing

What to do in an emergency

In a cold stress medical emergency, call 9-1-1. Remove any wet clothes and provide warm, dry clothing.  Cover the person’s head and neck, and wrap the body in blankets, towels, extra clothes or newspaper. It is important to handle a hypothermic person gently and warm them gradually. Do not apply direct heat or hot water, take medications, drink alcohol, or rub arms or legs. At this stage, these actions will make the condition worse.