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Hypothermia, Frostbite, and older adults

Tips for staying safe in cold weather.

Frigid weather can pose special risks to older adults. Hypothermia is generally defined as having a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower and can occur when the outside environment gets too cold or the body's heat production decreases. Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their bodies’ response to cold can be diminished by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and by use of some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. Hypothermia can develop in older adults after relatively short exposure to cold weather or even a small drop in temperature.

Someone may suffer from hypothermia if he or she has been exposed to cool temperatures and shows one or more of the following signs: slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, or a weak pulse.

To help avoid hypothermia, listed are some tips. Make sure your home is warm enough. Set the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older adults. To stay warm at home, wear long 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, it is important to wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens to 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. Wear several layers of warm loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers. Check with your doctor to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia

Hypothermia and frostbite often go hand in hand. With the lower temperatures and increased wind, frostbite can and often occurs quickly. Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissues are exposed to cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time.

Individuals are more likely to develop frostbite if they are currently taking beta-blockers, have peripheral vascular disease, smoke, or have diabetes. The symptoms include lack of sensation, red and painful flesh, pins and needles feeling followed by numbness and an area that aches or throbs. Very severe cases of frostbite may cause blisters, gangrene, damaged tendons, muscles, or nerves. While frostbite may affect any part of the body, the nose, feet, hands, and ears are the most vulnerable.

By being aware of factors that can contribute to frostbite, such as extreme cold, wet clothes, high winds, and poor circulation, individuals can help protect themselves. Poor circulation can be caused by tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, and fatigue.

Overall, remember to protect yourself and others as best you can from the elements of Mother

Nature. Stay inside when weather threatens, keep heat between 68-70 degrees inside your home and if you must go outside, remember to bundle up and plan short trips. AASC is one of Virginia’s 25 Area Agencies on Aging designated by the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services to carry out the department’s mission to foster the dignity, independence and security of older Virginians by promoting partnerships with communities at the local level. AASC offers information and services for older adults residing in Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties. Visit the organization’s website at www.aasc.org or call toll-free at 1-800-656-2272.