What is hypothermia?
If you are like most people, you feel cold every now and then during the winter. What you may not know is that just being really cold can make you very sick.
Older adults can lose body heat fast—faster than when they were young. A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem before an older person even knows what’s happening. Doctors call this serious problem hypothermia (hi-po-ther-mee-uh).
Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature colder than 95 degrees can cause many health problems such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.
Being outside in the cold, or even being in a very cold house, can lead to hypothermia. You can take steps to lower your chance of getting hypothermia.
Vermont winters can be very cold. Last December I wanted to save some money so I turned my heat down to 62 degrees. I didn’t know that would put my health in danger.
Luckily, my son Tyler came by to check on me. He saw that I was only wearing a light shirt and that my house was cold. Ty said I was speaking slowly, shivering, and having trouble walking. He wrapped me in a blanket and called 911.
Turns out I had hypothermia. My son’s quick thinking saved my life. Now on cold days, I keep my heat at least at 68 degrees and wear a sweater in the house.
Keep warm inside
Living in a cold house, apartment, or other building can cause hypothermia. People who are sick may have special problems keeping warm. Do not let it get too cold inside and dress warmly.
Tips for keeping warm inside:
- Set your heat at 68 degrees or higher. To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using.
- To keep warm at home, wear long johns under your clothes. Throw a blanket over your legs. Wear socks and slippers.
- When you go to sleep, wear long johns under your pajamas, and use extra covers. Wear a cap or hat.
- Ask family or friends to check on you during cold weather.
We’re a farm family, and the chores don’t stop when the weather gets cold. My sister Sarah and I are in our 70s. When it is cold, we wear our gloves, hats, boots, scarves, and layers of loose clothing under our jackets.
We don’t stay outside for long stretches. When the wind is really whipping, we stay inside and call on my grandsons to help with the outdoor work. It doesn’t have to be freezing outside for an older person to get hypothermia.
Bundle up on windy, cool days
A high wind can quickly lower your body temperature. Check the weather forecast for windy and cold days. On those days, try to stay inside or in a warm place. If you have to go out, wear warm clothes.
Tips for bundling up:
- Dress for the weather if you have to go out on chilly, cold, or damp days.
- Wear loose layers of clothing. The air between the layers helps to keep you warm.
- Put on a hat and scarf. You lose a lot of body heat when your head and neck are uncovered.
- Wear a waterproof coat or jacket if it’s snowy.
I have diabetes and my wife Rita has had some heart problems. Our doctor told us the medicines we take could make it easy for us to get really cold before we even know what's happening. That’s not good.
Our doctor said it would help if we stay active, even in cold weather. So, in the fall and winter we walk inside at the shopping center each morning to stay active. It’s great! Rita and I can keep moving and still stay inside when it’s cold.
Talk with your doctor about how to stay safe in cold weather
Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm. Taking some medicines and not being active also can affect body heat. Your doctor can help you find ways to prevent hypothermia.
Tips for talking with your doctor about hypothermia:
- Ask your doctor about signs of hypothermia.
- Talk to your doctor about any health problems and medicines that can make hypothermia a special problem for you.
- Ask about safe ways to stay active even when it’s cold outside.
Warning signs of hypothermia
Sometimes it is hard to tell if a person has hypothermia. Look for clues. Is the house very cold? Is the person not dressed for cold weather? Is the person speaking slower than normal and having trouble keeping his or her balance?
Watch for the signs of hypothermia in yourself, too. You might become confused if your body temperature gets very low. Talk to your family and friends about the warning signs so they can look out for you.
Early signs of hypothermia:
- cold feet and hands
- puffy or swollen face
- pale skin
- shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver)
- slower than normal speech or slurring words
- acting sleepy
- being angry or confused
Later signs of hypothermia:
- moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
- stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
- slow heartbeat
- slow, shallow breathing
- blacking out or losing consciousness
Call 911 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.
Tips for what to do after you call 911
- Wrap the person in a warm blanket.
- Do not rub the person’s legs or arms.
- Do not try to warm the person in a bath.
- Do not use a heating pad.
Your questions answered
Q: What health problems can make it hard for my body to stay warm?
A: Diabetes, thyroid problems, Parkinson’s disease, and arthritis are common problems for older people. These health concerns can make it harder for your body to stay warm. Talk to your doctor about your health problems and hypothermia. Your doctor can tell you how to stay warm enough even when it’s cold outside.
Q: Can medicines lower my body’s temperature?
A: Yes. Some medicines used by older people can make it easy to get hypothermia. These include medicines you get from your doctor and those you buy over-the-counter. Talk to your doctor before you stop taking any medicine.
Q: What can I do to stay warm at home?
A: Try closing off any room you are not using. Close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts.
Also, make sure your house isn’t losing heat through windows. Keep your blinds and curtains closed. If you have gaps around the windows, try using weather stripping or caulk to keep the cold air out.
And, it helps to wear warm clothes during the day and use extra blankets at night.
Q: Can I get any help with my heating bills?
A: You may be able to get help paying your heating bill. You can call the National Energy Assistance Referral service at 1-866-674-6327 to get information about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It’s a free call. If you have a computer with internet, you can also email them at email@example.com.
Summary — What you can do about hypothermia
- Set your heat at 68 degrees or higher.
- Dress warmly on cold days even if you are staying in the house.
- Wear loose layers when you go outside on chilly days. Wear a hat, scarf, and gloves.
- Don’t stay out in the cold and wind for a long time.
- Talk to your doctor about health problems that may make it harder for you to keep warm.
- Find safe ways to stay active even when it’s cold outside.
- Ask a neighbor or friend to check on you if you live alone.
- If you think someone has hypothermia, call 911 right away. Cover him or her with a blanket. Don’t rub his or her legs or arms.
National Institute on Aging
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health
This document sourced from the National Institute on Aging.