The Dangers of Hypothermia

The cold weather is upon us! While some people enjoy the snow and cold and others can’t wait for summer to return, none can deny that winter can produce some dangers, especially for older people. Not only are there slippery sidewalks to contend with, but also the possibility of hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature that is caused by staying in a cool place for too long. This may bring to mind images of someone who is lost outside in a blizzard, but hypothermia can strike a person in their own home where the heat is turned down too low. A body temperature below 96 degrees can cause an irregular heartbeat leading to heart problems and even death, if not treated promptly. Hypothermia is especially dangerous because it happens gradually and affects your thinking. You may not even realize you need help!

As caregivers, it important to be aware of the symptoms and risks of hypothermia as people with advanced age are especially vulnerable. When checking in on your relatives, friends or neighbors, be especially aware of the symptoms of hypothermia.

  • Confusion or sleepiness
  • Slowed, slurred speech or shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse or low blood pressure
  • Cold, pale skin
  • A lot of shivering or stiffness in the arms or legs
  • Chilly rooms or other signs that they have been in a cold place
  • Poor control over body movements or slow reactions

If you think someone may have hypothermia, take his/her temperature and if it doesn’t rise above 96 degrees, call 9-1-1. Then keep the person warm and dry by moving them to a warmer place, wrapping the person in blankets or coats or using your own body warmth by lying close to them. Do not rub their arms or legs as this can result in skin tears. Once at the emergency room, the doctor will verify the diagnosis and then warm the person’s body from the inside out. It is very important that a person with hypothermia is treated by a physician.

Sometimes people are tempted to turn their thermostats down too low as a way of saving money on their energy bill, but this can result in a dangerous situation. It is essential for people keep their home warm, especially on those days and weeks where the temperatures stay near zero. To be safe, your thermostat should be set for at least 68 degrees. Even temperatures between 60 and 65 can lead to illness.

There are some things you can do to keep yourself warm and cut down on heating costs. First, you can get ideas on reducing your heating bill by calling your power or gas company for information on weatherizing your home. Ideas such as closing vents and doors to rooms you are not using can cut your energy usage. Also, wearing several layers of loose clothing will keep you warmer while tight clothing can keep your blood from flowing freely. And lastly, eating enough food to keep up your body weight can also keep you warmer.

Jane Mahoney
Older American’s Act Consultant
Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources

Submitted by:
Tammy Sullivan
Home Care Solutions