Allercy and Asthma Health
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The Official Publication of AAN - MA

Tips for Older People on Avoiding Hypothermia this Winter

As we enter the winter months, most folks are looking forward to cold, crisp days and cozy evenings around the fireplace. But for many senior citizens, especially those who have respiratory problems like asthma, winter and its drop in temperatures can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hypothermia kills about 600 Americans every year, half of them age 65 and over.

Signs and symptoms

Why is hypothermia a bigger problem for older people than for other adults? Generally speaking, the body’s ability to regulate temperature declines with age. Likewise, some diseases common in senior citizens, such as diabetes, make it difficult to maintain the normal 98.6° F. Some medications, including some over-the-counter cold remedies, can also affect body temperature. The general inactivity common among older people often comes into play, too. Since senior citizens tend to sit still for long periods of time and don’t move around as much as younger people, they naturally have lower body temperatures.

The symptoms of hypothermia in older people often mimic the typical symptoms of aging. While shivering is an obvious indication you are too cold, other symptoms—like confusion, sleepiness, slowed or slurred speech, and stiffness in the arms and legs—could be mistaken for cognitive problems or arthritis. If you have hypothermia, you may also have a weak pulse or low blood pressure and exhibit poor control over body movements or slow reactions.

What to do if you suspect hypothermia

If you have any of these symptoms, take your temperature or have a family member do it for you. If the thermometer reads 96° F or below, you may need emergency assistance. In mild cases, treatment consists of slowly warming your body back to a normal temperature by covering yourself with a blanket and drinking warm beverages. Direct heat, such as that from a heating pad, should never be used, nor should heat be applied to the arms and legs because this will force cold blood back toward the heart, lungs, and brain, leading to a further drop in your core body temperature. However, warm compresses may be placed on the neck, chest wall, and groin.

You should also pay close attention to your breathing and if it is too low or shallow, a friend or family member should first begin giving you CPR, then call 911. In severe cases, the hospital may treat hypothermia with warm intravenous fluids or even hemodialysis to warm the blood before returning it to the body.

How to prevent it

The most important thing you can do to prevent hypothermia is to keep your home warm enough, and if you do go outdoors for any extended length of time, bundle up. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends older people set their thermostats to 68–70° F, because even mildly cool homes with temperatures between 60–65° F can trigger hypothermia in older people.

Nurse and respiratory therapist Mari Jones, RRT, ARNP, AE-C, FAARC, urges older people to get their heating systems checked and NOT to rely on space heaters. “Space heaters, especially kerosene heaters, play a role in home fires every year and can be extra dangerous in homes with oxygen,” she says. Of course, the high cost of heating is a concern for many senior citizens, and Jones recommends finding resources for people on fixed incomes in your own community so you can keep warm safely.

Also, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services makes funding available to assist older people who are having trouble paying their heating bills. More information on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program may be found by calling this toll-free number: (866) 674-6327. The Eldercare Locator, at (800) 677-1116, can offer assistance as well. The NIA has information about hypothermia in English and Spanish at (800) 222-2225.

 

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