Wednesday, December 21 marks the official start of winter, but many parts of Arkansas have already experienced extreme cold during the holidays. Especially for older adults, severely cold weather can be potentially dangerous—or deadly.
Checking in on older loved ones, neighbors, and friends is especially important during very cold weather. Older adults are particularly susceptible to hypothermia, which occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below normal for a period of time.
Hypothermia can occur when the outside environment gets too cold or the body's heat production decreases, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
With advancing age, the body’s ability to handle exposure to cold weather is lowered. Older people are also at risk for hypothermia because their body’s response to cold weather can be diminished by certain illnesses and some medications, the NIA says. Also, older adults are often less active and therefore generate less body heat. As a result, they can develop hypothermia after exposure to moderately cold weather or a small drop in temperature.
The symptoms of hypothermia include, according to the NIA:
- Confusion or sleepiness;
- Shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs;
- Slowed or slurred speech;
- Poor control over body movements or slow reactions; and
- Weak pulse
If you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, get them out of the cold if possible, call 911 right away for emergency help, remove any wet clothes and cover the person with a coat or blanket.
The following steps can help an older person avoid hypothermia, the NIA says:
- Make sure your home is warm enough. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older people.
- Stay warm at home in cold weather. You can do so by wearing 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.
- When going outside in the cold, wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens. These precautions will help prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. A hat is particularly important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wearing layers of warm loose clothing helps trap warm air between the layers.
- Check with your doctor or pharmacist. See if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
Free publications about hypothermia, including Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard and Stay Safe in Cold Weather, are available on the NIA website or by calling toll free 1-800-222-2225. The NIA is a division of the National Institutes of Health.