Northwest NEWS

December 11, 2000


Take precautions to prevent hypothermia in older adults

As the weather turns colder, individuals of all ages risk serious injury from exposure to icy conditions that can lead to hypothermia. Older adults, however, face a great danger and often unknowingly put themselves at risk.
   Hypothermia is the rapid, progressive mental and physical collapse caused by the chilling of the body's inner core.
   The people most likely to experience hypothermia are those who are very old, very young or very lean; those who have heart or circulation problems; and those who are hungry, tired or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
   Many people do not realize that hypothermia can occur in temperatures as high as the 50s. Trying to save money by keeping the heat off at home, or failing to dress warmly enough when venturing outside, can bring on signs of hypothermia rapidly. Typically, individuals may not realize they are in danger until it is too late. Here are some signs of hypothermia.
   Uncontrollable fits of shivering; Vague, slow, slurred speech; Memory lapses or incoherence; Immobile, fumbling hands; Frequent stumbling; Drowsiness; Apparent exhaustion and inability to get up after a rest.
   Often, a victim of hypothermia may deny he or she is in trouble. It is best to believe the symptoms, not the person, since even mild symptoms demand immediate attention. Call 911 immediately - hypothermia always requires medical attention.
   While waiting for help, put the victim in warm, dry clothing; give him/her small amounts of warm liquids to drink; and keep the individual awake.
   You can avoid hypothermia by taking the following precautions:
   Keep your heat at a reasonable temperature. If you are having trouble paying your utility bills, call 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377) for information about energy assistance programs for low-income and/or elderly individuals in King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.
   Dress warmly when going outside. Wear layers of clothing for good insulation from the cold.
   If you plan an outdoor recreational excursion like a hike, never go alone. Make sure a person back home knows where you are going and when you plan to return. Take an extra set of clothing with you in case you get wet. Water and wind increase the risk of hypothermia.
   Keep blankets, flares and emergency provisions in your car at all times in case you are stranded. Consider carrying a cell phone in your vehicle for emergencies, and make sure you keep it charged.
   Ask your physician or pharmacist if any medications you take increase your susceptibility to hypothermia. If they do, take extra precautions.
   To find out more about the resources that are available to you to prevent hypothermia - or for answers to any other questions that older adults and their caregivers may have about living healthier lives - call the Healthy Aging Partnership's toll-free, confidential information and assistance line at 1-888-4ELDERS (1-888-435-3377) or visit the Web site at