A Cold Weather Hazard
Almost everyone knows about winter dangers such as broken bones
from falls on ice or breathing problems caused by cold air. But, cold
weather is very risky for older people. The winter chill can also lower
the temperature inside your body. That can be deadly if not treated
quickly. This drop in body temperature, often caused by staying in a
cool place for too long is called hypothermia (hi-po-ther-mee-uh).
A body temperature
below 96° F may seem like just a couple of degrees below the body’s
normal temperature of 98.6° F. But, t can be dangerous. It may cause
an irregular heartbeat leading to heart problems and death.
To Look For
When you think about being cold, you probably think of shivering.
That is one thing the body does to stay warm when it gets cold.. Muscles
shiver in response to messages sent by the nerves. Shivering increases
muscle cell activity that, in turn, makes heat. But, shivering alone
does not mean hypothermia.
So, how can
you tell if someone has hypothermia? It can be tricky because some older
people may not want to complain. They may not even be aware of how cold
it is. Look for the “umbles” — stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and
grumbles — these show that the cold is affecting how well a person’s
muscles and nerves work. Watch for:
Should I Do?
If you think someone could have hypothermia, take his or her
temperature with a thermometer. Make sure you shake the thermometer
so it starts below its lowest point. If the temperature doesn’t rise
above 96° F, call for emergency help. In many areas that means calling
The only way
to tell for sure that someone has hypothermia is to use a special thermometer
that can read very low body temperatures. Most hospitals have such thermometers.
The person must be seen by a doctor. If possible, the doctor
should know about hypothermia and work in a well-equipped hospital emergency
room. There, the doctors will warm the person’s body from inside out.
For example, they may give the person warm fluids directly into a vein
using an I.V. Whether the person gets better depends on how long he
or she was exposed to the cold and his or her general health.
While you are
waiting for help to arrive, keep the person warm and dry. Move him or
her to a warmer place, if possible. Wrap the person in blankets, towels,
coats — whatever is handy. Even your own body warmth will help. Lie
close, but be gentle. You may be tempted to rub the person’s arms and
legs. This can make the problem worse. The skin of an older person may
be thinner and more easily torn than the skin of someone younger.
Things Put Me At Risk?
are some things that put any older person at risk for hypothermia.
What can you do?
Warm Inside and Out
Maybe you already knew that your health, your age, what you
eat or drink, even your clothes can make it hard for you to stay warm
enough wherever you are. What you might not realize is that people can
also get cold enough inside a building to get very sick. In fact, hypothermia
can even happen to someone in a nursing home or group facility if the
rooms are not kept warm enough. People living there who are already
sick may have special problems keeping warm. If someone you know is
in a group facility, pay attention to the inside temperature there and
to whether that person is dressed warmly enough.
Homes or apartments
that are not heated enough, even with a temperature of 60° F to 65°
F, can lead to illness. This is a special problem if you live alone
because there is no one else to comment on the chilliness of the house
or to notice if you are having symptoms of hypothermia. Set your thermostat
for at least 68° F to 70° F. If a power outage leaves you without heat,
try to stay with a relative or friend.
space heaters if your home seems cold or if you want to keep the thermostat
set lower to keep your heating costs down. Some types are fire hazards,
and others can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. The Consumer Product
Safety Commission has information on the use of space heaters, but here
are a few things to remember:
that you need to stay warm when it’s cold outside. Remember that this
means knowing if weather forecasts are for very cold temperatures or
for windy and cold weather. You lose more body heat on a windy day than
a calm day. Weather forecasters call this the wind-chill factor. They
often suggest, even when the outside temperature itself is not very
low, that the wind-chill factor is cold enough for people to stay indoors.
If you must go out, dress correctly. Be sure to wear a hat and gloves,
as well as warm clothes.
There Help for My Heating Bills?
Sometimes older people need help making sure their home will
keep them warm enough. Some help is available. If your home doesn’t
have enough insulation, contact your state or local energy agency or
the local power or gas company. They can give you information about
weatherizing your home. This can help keep the heating bills down. You
might also think about only heating the rooms you use in the house.
For example, shut the heating vents and doors to any bedrooms not being
used. Keep the door to the basement closed.
If you have
a limited income, you may qualify for help paying your heating bill.
State and local energy agencies, or gas and electric companies, may
have special programs. Another possible source of help is the Low Income
Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program supports some
people with small incomes who need help paying their heating and cooling
bills. Your local area agency on aging, senior center, or community
action agency may have information on programs such as these.
Are you worried
that your landlord may want to cut off the gas or electricity in cold
weather if you cannot pay a utility bill? Many states and cities now
have laws to protect you, at least until other plans are made. Do not
wait for winter to find out about these programs. Check with your local
government about the laws that may apply where you live.
Product Safety Commission
find your local area agency on aging look in the telephone book or contact:
Association of Area Agencies on Aging
Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
For more information on health and aging, contact:
To order publications (in English or Spanish) or sign
up for e-mail alerts, visit
The National Institute on Aging website is www.nia.nih.gov.
Visit NIHSeniorHealth.gov (www.nihseniorhealth.gov), a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. The simple-to-use website features popular health topics for older adults. It has large type and a "talking" function that reads the text out loud.