Elder Health

Hypothermia: A cold weather hazard

As the winter months approach, it is important to understand risks that cold exposure can pose for older adults and those with chronic medical conditions. Older adults can lose body heat quickly, and changes in the body as we age can make it harder to recognize a drop in body temperature. The result can be a serious condition called hypothermia.

Hypothermia—a dangerous drop in core body temperature—can occur when it is cold inside or outside and the body is unable to produce the heat it needs to function. Even a relatively short exposure to cold conditions can result in hypothermia. Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their bodies’ response to cold can be diminished by chronic medical conditions and by use of some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. For an older person, a body temperature of 95°F or lower can cause many health problems, such as heart rhythm disturbances, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.

Warning signs of hypothermia include slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, a weak pulse, or a core body temperature of 95 degrees F or lower. If you think someone has the warning signs for hypothermia, call 9-1-1 right away and try to move the person to a warmer place.

To help older adults understand the risks, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has some tips to avoid some of the dangers and prevent hypothermia:

  • When going outside in the cold, wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens to prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. Wear several layers of loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • If possible, let others know when you’re planning to spend time outdoors and carry a fully charged cellphone.
  • Make sure your home is warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees F can lead to hypothermia in older adults.
  • To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.

States, territories, tribes, and tribal organizations may be able to help eligible households pay for home heating and cooling costs. People interested in applying for assistance should contact their local or state social services agency.

The NIA has free information about hypothermia in a brochure “Stay Safe in Cold Weather,” and a fact sheet in Spanish “La hipotermia: un peligro del clima frío.” You can find these and other free publications on healthy aging on the NIA website or order free copies by calling NIA’s toll-free number 1-800-222-2225.

About the National Institute on Aging: The NIA leads the federal government effort conducting and supporting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. The Institute’s broad scientific program seeks to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. For more information on research, aging, and health, go to the NIA website.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit the NIH website.

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