Hypothermia means low body temperature. It occurs when we are unable to keep our core body temperature at or above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If the body remains below 95°F for too long it can kill us. Most of the deaths caused by hypothermia are the result of irregular heartbeats that lead to heart failure.
One reason so many people die of hypothermia in their own homes each year is that it can happen very gradually without their even knowing they were getting too cold. That's because the brain is the first organ affected as the temperature of the human body drops. In a very short time, we cannot think clearly, become confused and start to feel sleepy. Once that happens, we may not realize we are too cold, so don't seek help or do anything to keep ourselves warm. Then, we may fall asleep.
Hypothermia Among the Elderly
The elderly are especially at risk since changes in the body can make it harder for them to tell they are getting cold, especially when conditions are not that severe. That is one reason why those being cared for in skilled nursing facilities need to have their body temperature measured regularly to be sure they are not too cold.
Elderly people living on their own may put themselves at risk by setting their thermostat lower to save on the heating bill. Unless someone stops by and tells them how chilly it is in their home, they may not realize it. They may also be unable to put on all the layers of clothing they need to stay warm due to arthritis and other illnesses that make it difficult to move their arms and legs.
Certain illnesses that accompany aging can also make it harder to stay warm, such as hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone), diabetes and circulatory problems. Extra precautions may be needed by people with those conditions to dress appropriately and be prepared for unexpected changes in the weather. Medications used to treat anxiety, depression and nausea can increase the risk of accidental hypothermia along with some over-the-counter cold remedies, so should be checked with the pharmacist.
Signs of Low Body Temperature
Even if someone is shivering it does not mean they are effectively keeping themself warm. Conversely, if someone is not shivering it does not mean they are not cold. According the National Institute on Aging, in either case they could be experiencing hypothermia, so check for the "umbles":
If someone has these symptoms and you suspect they may be suffering from hypothermia, take their temperature. If it is not above 96° F, call for emergency services. While waiting for help to arrive try to keep the person warm by wrapping them in coats, sweaters or dry blankets and towels - whatever is available - including your own body. If they are lying down, just lie against them and gently press your body next to theirs.
Once at the hospital a special thermometer will be used to get an accurate reading of the person's temperature since most household thermometers cannot read very low temperatures. Treatment with warmed intravenous fluids or more aggressive rewarming with fluids infused directly into the stomach or bladder may be needed.
How are you planning to keep warm this winter?