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Cold Weather Safety

Everyone knows about winter dangers such as broken bones from falls on ice, car wrecks from slick roads and breathing problems caused by cold air. But exposure to cold weather temperatures also poses a risk for senior citizens. The winter chill can lower the temperature inside your body. This drop in body temperature, called hypothermia (hi-po-ther-mee-uh), can be deadly if not treated quickly.

How to tell if someone has hypothermia

This can be tricky. Some people may not want to complain. Some people may not even be aware of how cold it is or how chilled they have become. For some, just a short time in a cold room will cause hypothermia.

Watch for:

  • Confusion or sleepiness
  • Slowed or slurred speech, mumbling
  • Shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse or low blood pressure
  • Chilly rooms or other signs that they have been in a cold place
  • Stiffness in arms and legs
  • Stumbling, fumbling
  • Unusual behavior – grumpiness, refusal to take fluids

What to do if someone has hypothermia

If you think someone could have hypothermia, take his or her temperature. If the temperature doesn’t rise above 96° F call for emergency help. The person must see a doctor.

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.

How to avoid getting cold

All of us are at risk for becoming cold, but there are some things that put us at greater risk as we age. Changes that come with aging can make it harder to feel when you are getting cold. It may also be harder for your body to warm itself.

  • Make sure you eat enough food to keep up your weight. If you don’t eat well, you might have less fat under your skin. Fat can protect your body. It keeps heat in your body. Eat healthy.
  • Wear more clothes, in layers. Cover with a blanket when sitting still. Wear a hat and gloves. Tight clothing can keep your blood from flowing freely which can cause loss of body heat.
  • See your doctor to keep any illnesses under control. Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm; these include diabetes, psoriasis and low thyroid levels.
  • Ask your doctor how the medicines you are taking affect body heat. Some medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, can increase the risk of accidental hypothermia.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks during cold weather. They can make you lose body heat faster.

Staying warm inside

You are probably already aware that staying warm while you are outside takes special care but you may not realize that people can get cold inside buildings too. Homes that are not heated enough can lead to illness. If you live alone, you may not realize that the house is chilly. Set your thermostat to at least 68° to 70° F. If a power outage leaves you without heat, stay with a relative or friend, or go to a community center.

Using space heaters as your heating source means you have to be aware of the dangers. They can be a fire hazard or can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Make sure your space heater has been approved by a recognized testing laboratory.
  • Choose the right size heater for the space you are heating.
  • Keep substances that can catch fire like clothing, towels, curtains and papers away from the heating element.
  • Keep the door to the rest of the house open for good air flow.
  • Turn the heater off when you leave the room or go to bed.
  • Make sure your smoke alarms are working.
  • Put a carbon monoxide detector near where people sleep.

Staying warm outside

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.

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