You probably know winter can spell trouble. You can fall on ice or overdo it shoveling snow, for instance.
But did you know cold itself can cause a problem? It's called hypothermia, and it takes place when your body temperature drops below normal. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says older adults are especially prone to hypothermia, which can prove deadly if it's not treated quickly. Staying in a cold place for too long can cause the problem.
Older adults are more at risk for hypothermia because aging lowers your ability to endure long periods of cold. You're also at risk if your response to cold is impaired by certain illnesses, such as diabetes, and some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies.
What's more, the NIA warns, older people may be less active and generate less body heat. And changes in aging bodies make it harder for you to tell when the temperature is too low, adds the American Geriatrics Society.
One way to prevent hypothermia is to make sure your home is warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68°F (20°C) to 70°F (21.1°C), the NIA advises. Even mildly cool homes, with temperatures from 60°F (15.5°C) to 65°F (18.3°C), can trigger hypothermia in older people.
As heating costs rise, some seniors lower their thermostats too much. Lack of heat sends seniors to emergency rooms every year. To prevent this potentially dangerous behavior, some states offer heating assistance programs for low-income elders.
Also remember that if you turn to alternative heating sources, such as space heaters and woodstoves, you must install, maintain, and use them the right way. These sources carry risks including carbon monoxide poisoning and an increased risk of fires. Be sure to have them regularly inspected, and have carbon monoxide and smoke detectors installed and working in your home (have someone who can reach them check the batteries).
These are warning signs of hypothermia:
Confusion, forgetfulness, or drowsiness
Shivering, although elderly adults may not have this symptom
Clumsiness or stiff muscles
Follow certain "dos" and "don'ts" when dealing with a person with hypothermia. Most important, remember to warm the person slowly. To do this properly, protect the person from the cold with blankets, quilts, towels, or extra clothes, and raise indoor temperatures to a warmer degree. Don't place the person in a hot shower or bath, don't offer alcohol or drugs, and don't rub any parts of the person's body.
If someone you know has been exposed to cold temperatures, remain calm and get medical assistance immediately.
Hypothermia can be prevented. Consider these prevention tips:
Make your home as energy efficient as possible so that keeping it warm enough will not be economically difficult. Suggestions include installing double-glazed windows, increasing insulation in the attic, and insulating walls. Installing good weather stripping around doors is also helpful.
Do not allow room temperatures to fall below 68°F (20°C).
If you're struggling to pay for heating, call the National Energy Assistance Referral Hotline toll-free at 866-674-6327.
Maintain sufficient humidity in the home. Use a humidifier to assure about 30% humidity.
If you use space heaters, fireplaces, woodstoves, and other alternative heat, make sure they're installed, cleaned, used, and serviced properly to prevent the risk of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Dress warmly and appropriately. Wear several layers of loose clothing to trap warm air around your body.
Keep your head, neck, feet, and hands covered at all times in cold temperatures.
Drink plenty of fluids, and avoid alcohol and nicotine.
Stay dry. Keep heating pads and electric blankets on hand to stay warm, but use them carefully. Use heating pads only as directed and very carefully to avoid burns that may occur without your noticing. Never sleep with a heating pad turned on. It may cause burns.
Follow a healthy diet. This is particularly important during winter months, because you burn calories to produce body heat. If you are undernourished, you may not be able to stay warm. Well-balanced meals are available through agencies on aging. These are inexpensive, nutritious, and filling and may be available without charge to elderly who are unable to pay.
Exercise regularly, as your age and health permit. This will improve your appetite and produce body heat.
Call 911 if you suspect that you or someone you know may have hypothermia.