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Older, Colder a Bad Combination

Hypothermia can happen even while you sleep

SUNDAY, Jan. 26, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Hypothermia is a serious, life-threatening condition marked by an abnormally low internal body temperature, one that develops when body heat is lost to the environment faster than the body can replace it.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, the temperature does not have to be below freezing for hypothermia to occur, especially in vulnerable individuals.

The elderly in particular are vulnerable to developing a low body temperature after exposure to conditions of mild cold that would produce only moderate discomfort in younger people.

Among the elderly, those most likely to develop hypothermia are those who are sick, frail, very old or those too poor to afford effective home heating systems. The risk is especially elevated for those who are medically vulnerable and unaware of or confused about how to keep warm when temperatures drop.

Others who are susceptible include individuals who live alone or in isolated or very rural communities (particularly if they don't have access to telephones to call for help in case of accident or illness); those who do not shiver or react to cold; and those who take certain medications that prevent the body from regulating temperatures normally, such as anti-depressants, sedatives, tranquilizers and cardiovascular drugs.

Hypothermia is a serious, life-threatening condition that can result in illness or death. Although there are no accurate data on the number of elderly persons affected, estimates suggest those impacted by temperature-regulating defects may comprise more than 10 percent of the over-65 population.

Practical advice for the elderly during colder weather includes:

  • If you live alone, arrange for a daily check-in call with a friend, neighbor or relative.
  • Insulate your home. Caulking is a particularly low-cost and effective technique to preserve indoor heat and keep cold air at bay.
  • Wear warm clothing. Instead of tight clothing, wear several loose, warm layers. Wear a hat and scarf to avoid significant heat loss through the head and neck. Stay dry. Moisture from perspiration, rain or melting snow can seriously reduce or destroy the insulating value of clothing because water conducts body heat over 25 times faster than air.
  • Use extra blankets because hypothermia can develop during sleep.
  • Eat nutritious foods and exercise moderately; proper diet and physical conditioning help protect against temperature extremes.
  • Get proper rest because fatigue causes greater vulnerability to subnormal heat and cold.
  • Drink adequate amounts of liquids, but limit alcohol intake because alcohol speeds up body heat loss.

More information

For more tips on the prevention and treatment of hypothermia, visit the Hypothermia.Org.

Source: University of Tennessee Medical Center
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