Keeping Winter’s Chill Away


Photo Credit: National Institute on Aging

Autumn ends and winter begins on December 21st.  With frigid temperatures coming soon, the Rhode Island Department of Health calls on older Rhode Islanders to take precautions in extreme cold weather. Older adults can lose body heat quickly, faster than when they were young.  With changes taking place in your body that comes with aging it becomes harder for the older person to sense reduced temperate changes in the body.  This is referred to as hypothermia.  When the body’s temperature reaches 95 ºF or lower (a normal body temperature is considered 98 ºF), health problems can occur, such as a heart attack, kidney problems o, even liver damage and eventually death.

In addition, people with thyroid and hormone system disorders, arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, memory disorders, or those taking medications to treat anxiety, depression, nausea or some over-the-counter remedies are more likely to suffer from hypothermia, too.

Observing the Clues…

Sometimes it is hard to tell if a person has hypothermia so look for clues. Is the person outside in the cold weather and not dressed warmly or in a very cold house or apartment with the heat turned very low to save money?  Is the person not dressed for being outdoors?  Is the person speaking slower than normal and having trouble keeping his or her balance?  People who are sick should be monitored because they may also have special problems keeping warm.

Watch for these early signs of hypothermia: cold feet and hands; puffy or swollen face; pale skin; shivering (in some cases there is no slivering); and acting sleepy.

Later signs of this medical emergency include: moving slowly; trouble walking; or being clumsy; stiff and jerky arm or leg movements; slow heartbeat; slow, shallow breathing; and even blacking out or losing consciousness.

Contact 9-1-1 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.

After calling, try moving the person to a warmer place, wrapping them in a warm blanket, towel or what ever you can get your hands on. Offer a warm drink, but avoid giving alcohol or coffee. Do not rub the person’s legs or arms, give a warm bath or use a heating paid.

But, the only way to definitely make sure that a person has hypothermia is to use a special thermometer that can read very low body temperatures. Most hospitals have these thermometers. In the emergency room, doctors may give the person warm fluids directly by using an IV. Recovery depends on how long the person was exposed to the cold and his or her general health.

Tips on Keeping Warm

To get warm inside your home, crank up your heat to at least 68-.70 ºF.  Close off rooms that you are not using to lower your heating bill and keep the basement door closed.  A rolled towel placed in from of all doors will keep out cold drafts.

But, if you go outside dress for cold, chilly and damp weather.  Layer your clothing to keep warm.  Wear a hat and scarf.  You can lose a lot of body heat when your head and neck are not covered up. Wear a waterproof coat or jacket if it is snowing.

Even if you are staying indoor on very frigid days, dress warmly, throw a warm blanket over your legs and wear socks and slippers. When going to bed wear long underwear under your PJs, use extra blankets and comforters, and even wear a cap to keep you from losing body heat.

Keep your blinds and curtains closed to keep losing heat through the windows. Weather striping or caulking can also keep the cold from coming through gaps around the windows.

Also, keep up your weight.  Body fat helps to keep you warm.

If you drink alcohol do it moderately because alcoholic drinks can make you lose body heat.

Finally, ask family, friends or caregivers to check on you during frigid weather. If a power outage leaves you without heat, try to stay with a relative or friend or go emergency shelters.

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