With winter comes the risk of
hypothermia. Hypothermia, defined as below-normal body temperature, can be life-threatening if not promptly treated.
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), older people have an increased risk for hypothermia. As people age, the natural ability to keep warm in the cold may decrease. Inactivity, illness, and certain medications make it even harder to stay warm. Learn the signs of hypothermia. The sooner treatment starts, the better the outcome.
Early signs of hypothermia include:
- Cold hands and feet
- Slow, slurred speech
- Confusion or anger
Late signs of hypothermia may include:
- Unusual changes in behavior
- Trouble walking
- Slow movement
- Shallow breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Call for emergency medical services right away if you think you or a loved one may have hypothermia.
Hypothermia is preventable. Some tips for avoiding hypothermia include:
- Find out if you are at risk. Ask your doctor if the prescription or over-the-counter medications you take can affect how your body regulates temperature.
- Dress warmly in layers of clothing, even when indoors. Hypothermia can occur in bed, so wear warm clothing to bed and use blankets.
- Keep your hands and head covered and warm when outside in cold weather.
- If you get wet on a cool fall or spring day, be sure to come inside to a warm room and dry off. Remove wet clothes as soon as you can.
- Ask friends or neighbors to visit you once or twice a day if you live alone. See if your local community has a telephone check-in or personal visit service.
- Use alcohol moderately, if at all. Avoid alcohol near bedtime. Some people think wrongly that alcohol is helpful in cold weather because it makes people feel warm and flushed. But that warmth occurs because alcohol causes blood vessels in our hands and face to open up and draw heat from the deep parts of the body to the surface. As a result, alcohol causes us to lose heat and is an important cause of hypothermia.
- Eat hot foods and drink hot liquids to raise your body temperature and keep warm.
- Set the thermostat in your home to at least 68°F–70°F in living or sleeping areas. Ask your doctor if you should set your thermostat higher.
- Look into fuel-assistance programs and home winterization programs. Call your local utility company or any other agencies that have an assistance program.
Hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 19, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2014.
Hypothermia: a cold weather hazard. National Institute on Aging website. Available at:
http://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2011/02/hypothermia-cold-weather-hazard. Updated May 15, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2014.
Stay safe in cold weather. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/stay_safe_in_cold_weather.pdf. Updated June 2011. Accessed June 4, 2014.
Last reviewed June 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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