Hypothermia and Older Adults

Older adults can lose body heat fast—faster than when they were young. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to be aware of getting cold. A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem before an older person even knows what's happening. Doctors call this serious problem hypothermia.

What Is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is what happens when your body temperature gets very low. For an older person, a body temperature of 95°F or lower can cause many health problems, such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse.

Being outside in the cold, or even being in a very cold house, can lead to hypothermia. Try to stay away from cold places, and pay attention to how cold it is where you are. You can take steps to lower your chance of getting hypothermia.

Illness, Medicines, and Cold Weather

Bob's Story

Vermont winters can be very cold. Last December, I wanted to save some money so I turned my heat down to 62°F. I didn't know that would put my health in danger.

Luckily, my son Tyler came by to check on me. He saw that I was only wearing a light shirt and that my house was cold. Ty said I was speaking slowly, shivering, and having trouble walking. He wrapped me in a blanket and called 9-1-1.

Turns out I had hypothermia. My son's quick thinking saved my life. Now on cold days, I keep my heat at least at 68°F and wear a sweater in the house.

Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm.

  • Thyroid problems can make it hard to maintain a normal body temperature.
  • Diabetes can keep blood from flowing normally to provide warmth.
  • Parkinson's disease and arthritis can make it hard to put on more clothes, use a blanket, or get out of the cold.
  • Memory loss can cause a person to go outside without the right clothing.

Talk with your doctor about your health problems and how to prevent hypothermia.

Taking some medicines and not being active also can affect body heat. These include medicines you get from your doctor and those you buy over-the-counter, such as some cold medicines. Ask your doctor if the medicines you take may affect body heat. Always talk with your doctor before you stop taking any medication.

Here are some topics to talk about with your doctor to stay safe in cold weather:

  • Ask your doctor about signs of hypothermia.

  • Talk to your doctor about any health problems and medicines that can make hypothermia a special problem for you. Your doctor can help you find ways to prevent hypothermia.

  • Ask about safe ways to stay active even when it's cold outside.

What Are the Warning Signs of Hypothermia?

Sometimes it is hard to tell if a person has hypothermia. Look for clues. Is the house very cold? Is the person not dressed for cold weather? Is the person speaking slower than normal and having trouble keeping his or her balance?

Watch for the signs of hypothermia in yourself, too. You might become confused if your body temperature gets very low. Talk to your family and friends about the warning signs so they can look out for you.

Early signs of hypothermia:

  • Cold feet and hands
  • Puffy or swollen face
  • Pale skin
  • Shivering (in some cases the person with hypothermia does not shiver)
  • Slower than normal speech or slurring words
  • Acting sleepy
  • Being angry or confused

Later signs of hypothermia:

  • Moving slowly, trouble walking, or being clumsy
  • Stiff and jerky arm or leg movements
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Blacking out or losing consciousness

Call 9-1-1 right away if you think someone has warning signs of hypothermia.

What to do after you call 9-1-1:

  • Try to move the person to a warmer place.
  • Wrap the person in a warm blanket, towels, or coats—whatever is handy. Even your own body warmth will help. Lie close, but be gentle.
  • Give the person something warm to drink, but avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine, such as regular coffee.
  • Do not rub the person's legs or arms.
  • Do not try to warm the person in a bath.
  • Do not use a heating pad.

Hypothermia and the Emergency Room

The only way to tell for sure that someone has hypothermia is to use a special thermometer that can read very low body temperatures. Most hospitals have these thermometers. In the emergency room, doctors will warm the person's body from inside out. For example, they may give the person warm fluids directly by using an IV. Recovery depends on how long the person was exposed to the cold and his or her general health.


 Reprinted from NIH:Institute on Aging