Dangers from the Cold for the Elderly – and their Prevention
During the winter season, especially during stormy weather, exposure to cold could cause body temperature to drop below the normal level (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and hypothermia – a condition in which body temperature drops to below 95 degrees or less, a condition that causes multi-system injury and increased mortality.
At an older age and among the elderly, the danger of exposure to cold and of hypothermia is particularly high, and even with a mild drop in environmental temperature, there is already a risk of reduced body temperature.
The danger presented by the cold to older adults is elevated due to a combination of bodily (physiological) and behavioral factors:
- Environmental cold is felt less by the elderly, and their ability to control and regulate body temperature is reduced.
- Elderly persons with conditions of chronic illness and multiple medications are more vulnerable to the cold.
- Elderly persons with poor nutrition are more vulnerable to the cold.
- The elderly tend to drink too little and to dehydrate even in the winter.
- The elderly are liable to remain inactive at home, dressed inappropriately for the weather.
- There is sometimes a tendency to heat the home less in order to save heating costs.
The more personal and environmental risk factors the elderly person has, the greater the risk. It is therefore important to take the following precautions (each recommendation will be described in detail below):
- Proper heating and avoiding exposure to the cold.
- Maintaining good health habits – drinking, eating and physical exercise.
- Consulting with the family physician regarding precautions to be taken for persons with chronic illness and/or being treated with sleeping tablets or tranquilizers.
- Seeking medical treatment if hypothermia is suspected.
- The level of caution needs to be redoubled in respect of elderly persons living alone.
Proper heating and avoiding exposure to the cold
- Maintain a temperature of 20-24 degrees Celsius in the rooms. Purchasing a thermometer that measures room temperature is recommended.
- In order for the heating to be efficient, it is recommended to properly seal home openings (windows, doors, etc.). Nevertheless, proper ventilation of rooms should be maintained.
- Room air should be kept sufficiently humid: avoid air that is too dry and uncomfortable for breathing, while at the same time avoiding air that is too humid that could cause illness.
- Verify the safety of heaters in the apartment, with the assistance of family members and professionals. The use of kerosene heaters is strictly forbidden, since these emit carbon monoxide which could cause loss of consciousness. If there is financial hardship in paying for heating expenses, you can ask the aid of the welfare service in your community.
- Make sure to wear warm and comfortable clothing, with several layers, to avoid heat loss, but without restricting movement at home.
- In the morning, it is important to dress relatively warmly, since the body is still not sufficiently active (low metabolism).
- At nighttime, when going to sleep, keep covered with a suitable blanket, wear warm clothes, including socks. Flannel sheets (which are warmer) are recommended, and make sure to heat the room (using safe heaters).
- Avoid going out in cold or stormy weather. It is recommended to follow the weather forecasts and plan accordingly.
- When in is essential to leave the house, in addition to a coat, wearing a hat and gloves is recommended.
- Make sure to drink a sufficient amount of water in winter as well(8-10 glasses a day) – even when not feeling thirsty!
- Avoid drinking alcohol and beverages that contain caffeine.
- Eat frequent, relatively light meals (5-6 times a day), and avoid heavy meals.
- Warm beverages and foods help preserve body heat.
- While at home, keep active and mobile, increase blood flow and raise body heat.
Consulting with the family physician
- Consult the physician regarding the intake of medications that might increase sensitivity to cold weather (in particular, sleeping and tranquilizing medications and “strong” pain killers) regarding health conditions that could elevate the risk posed by exposure to cold.
- In case of suspected hypothermia(decrease in body temperature) – if the elderly persons appears cold, less responsive or confused – call for medical assistance immediately.
Elderly persons living alone
Persons living alone may have difficulty heating the home and caring for themselves (clothing, eating, drinking and the like), and they are at elevated risk for injury from the cold.
Sometimes, elderly people who live alone fall at home and remain lying on the cold floor for long periods, which could result in severe hypothermia.
It is therefore recommended, in addition to the above, to take the following actions:
- Keep in touch and make sure that family, friends, neighbors or volunteers visit the elderly person – at least once a day.
- Make sure that the lone senior citizen’s personal details (name, address and telephone number) are available to the welfare services in their community, so as to receive assistance if necessary and to arrange for regular visits.
How can you identify body heat loss (hypothermia) in the elderly?
- The house is seen to be cold and the elderly person inactive.
- During the initial stages of hypothermia, the skin is cold, there may be bluish fingertips and lips, reduced alertness, mild confusion, slurred speech, but nevertheless, the elderly person suffering from hypothermia might not shiver or complain of feeling cold.
- Please note that hypothermia cannot be identified using a home thermometer (since the home thermometer is only designed to identify a rise in body temperature!)
- If this continues, the elderly person will become less alert and his confusion could worsen. This condition poses a risk for the function of vital systems – in particular the respiratory system and heart function – go to the hospital immediately.
What to do if hypothermia is suspected
- Summons medical assistance immediately and/or go to the hospital immediately.
- Until help arrives:
- Gently move the senior citizen to a warm and dry place.
- If his clothes are wet, remove them, and cover him with dry clothes and blankets.
- Take care not to shake the elderly person.
- Persons suffering from hypothermia who are conscious should be given warm beverage.