In the Spotlight

Cold Weather Safety

Contributed by Marianne Shaughnessy, Ph.D., CRN

two people dressed warmly

If you live in cold weather climates, winter may be a season you enjoy or one you dread. As we get older, our bodies are more prone to problems with cold weather. Older adults can lose body heat faster than when they were young. Like machines in the cold, our bodies may not run as efficiently. Make sure that cold weather does not bring a threat of harm. It is important to take special care during cold weather. Being outside in the cold or in a cold house can lead to hypothermia. Hypothermia happens when the body temperature reaches 95 degrees or lower, and can lead to a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage or death.

To avoid hypothermia, follow these winter safety tips:

While indoors

  • Set your thermostat at 68 degrees or higher To save on heating bills, close off rooms you are not using. Close the vents and shut the doors in these rooms. Place a rolled towel in front of all doors to keep out drafts.

  • Dress warmly
    Wear layers of clothing as needed. Throw a blanket over your legs. Make sure to wear socks and slippers or shoes in the house.

  • Wear layers when you go to sleep
    Wear long underwear under your pajamas and use extra covers as needed. Wear a cap or hat, if necessary to keep your head warm.

  • Have people check on you
    Ask your family or friends to check in on you during severe cold weather.

When you go outside

  • Dress for the weather
    Wear loose layers of clothing. The air between the layers will help keep you warm.

  • Put on a hat and scarf
    Lots of body heat is lost when the head and neck are uncovered.

  • Stay indoors if it is a windy day
    A high wind can quickly lower your body temperature.

If you have diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, or thyroid problems you may be at greater risk for hypothermia. Certain drugs may make older adults more prone to hypothermia. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if you are at risk for hypothermia.

woman bundled warmly holding a mug

Early warning signs of hypothermia may include cold hands and feet, puffy or swollen face, pale skin and shivering. The person's speech may be slower than normal or they may slur their words. The person may act sleepy, and act angry or confused. As hypothermia progresses, you may see signs such as moving slowly, stiff or jerky arm or leg movements. The heartbeat may be slowed and not regular. Breathing may be slow and shallow. The person could black out (lose consciousness). If you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia, call 911 right away. Wrap the person in a warm blanket. Do not attempt to rub the person's legs or arms, or warm them with a bath or heating pad.

You may be able to get help with heating bills by contacting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program hotline at 1-866-674-6327.

Learn More:

Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard (National Institute on Aging NIH)

Stay Safe in Cold Weather (PDF), requires Adobe Reader (National Institute on Aging NIH)

Resource:

This article was adapted from the National Institute on Aging brochure: Stay Safe in Cold Weather. NIH Publication No. 06-7349, November 2006.


Updated/Reviewed: January 31, 2010