AMARILLO Cold winter weather brings more hazards than icy roads and broken water pipes. Cold can also kill.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 600 Americans half of them older than 65 die each year from hypothermia.
On its Web site, the agency defines hypothermia as “abnormally low body temperature” which “affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.” (Visit the Web at http://www.cdc.gov/ and click on winter weather.)
The condition occurs when the body’s normal temperature of 98.6 F drops to 95 F, said Andrew Crocker, Texas Cooperative Extension specialist in gerontology and health.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean cold weather, he said. Even indoor temperatures of 60 F to 65 F can cause hypothermia.
“Older people may be at greater risk for this condition if their body’s response to cold is diminished by certain illnesses such as arthritis and medications including some over-the-counter cold remedies,” he said.
The CDC also warns that becoming chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water can also cause hypothermia.
To identify the symptoms of hypothermia, Crocker said, “look for the umbles’ stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles. Changes in a person’s behavior may indicate that the cold is affecting muscles and nerves.”
If hypothermia is suspected and a thermometer is available, he said, take the person’s temperature. If it is 96 F or lower, call 911 immediately.
“The most important step in treating someone with hypothermia is to immediately warm that person,” Crocker said. Use coats, blankets, towels whatever is available, even including your own body heat.
Gently rub the person’s arms and legs, he said, but be careful especially if the victim is elderly. Their skin can be damaged easily.
The CDC also advises providing warm non-alcoholic beverages to conscious victims of hypothermia and keeping them dry and completely wrapped in warm blankets head and neck included.
To prevent hypothermia in the first place, Crocker advised:
- Dress warmly during cool or cold weather, even when indoors.
- Don’t let anyone especially babies or older adults sleep in rooms that are too cold.
- Don’t stay outdoors for extended periods during cold weather.
- Don’t drink or use illegal drugs.
- Keep the thermostat set no colder than 68 or 70 degrees.
“Because heating costs are high, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently allocated $100 million in emergency funds to help low-income families pay their heating bills,” Crocker said.
For more information on this service call the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at (866) 674-6327 or Eldercare Locator at (800) 677-1116, or visit the Web at http://www.energynear.org. For Texas-specific information, Crocker said, go to http://neaap.ncat.org/programs/lowincome/tx-li.htm.
The National Institute on Aging has a free Age Page on hypothermia. To receive it, call (800) 222-2225. Visit the Web at http://www.nia.nih.gov/ For more information on this and other issues of aging, visit Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences Web site at http://fcs.tamu.edu/ and click on the link to Families.