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Generations: Learn cold, hard facts about hypothermia

Question: How can I tell if someone has hypothermia?

Answer: Winter temperatures can lower the body temperature and it can be dangerous – even deadly – if not treated quickly. The drop in body temperature, often caused by staying in a cool place for too long, is called hypothermia.

So, how can you tell if someone has hypothermia? It can be tricky because some older people may not want to complain.

Signs of hypothermia

• Confusion or sleepiness

• Slowed or slurred speech

• Shallow breathing

• A change in appearance / behavior during cold weather

• A lot of or no shivering

• Stiffness in the arms or legs, slow reaction or poor control of body movements

• Symptoms of being in a cold place for a prolonged period

Know your risks

There are some things that put any older person at risk for hypothermia. Here are some things to keep in mind:

• Stay away from cold places. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder for you to feel when you are getting cold. Plus, it may be harder for your body to warm itself. Pay attention to how cold it is where you are.

• Eat enough food to keep up your weight. If you don’t eat well, you might have less fat under your skin. Fat can protect your body by retaining heat.

• See your doctor to keep any illnesses under control. Some conditions and illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm. These include: hormone system problems, such as hypothyroidism; health conditions, such as diabetes, that impede circulation; and skin problems, such as psoriasis, that allow your body to lose more heat than normal.

• Wear several layers of loose clothing when it’s cold. The layers will trap warm air between them. Clothing can make you colder or help keep you warm. However, tight clothing can keep your blood from flowing freely, which can lead to loss of body heat.

Be aware of health conditions that may make it difficult for you to put on more clothes or leave a cold environment. Some examples are severe arthritis or other illnesses limiting mobility, stroke, memory disorders, dementia or other illnesses that can cause paralysis or impede clear thinking.

• Ask your doctor how the medicines you take affect body heat. Some medicines often used by older people also increase the risk of accidental hypothermia. These include drugs used to treat anxiety, depression and nausea. Some over-the-counter cold remedies can also cause problems.

• Drink alcohol moderately, if at all. And do not drink alcohol before bedtime during colder months. Alcohol can also make you lose body heat faster.

Stay warm inside and out

Health, age, what you eat or drink, even your clothes can make it hard for you to stay warm. But what you may not realize is people can get cold enough inside a building that they become dangerously sick.

Spending long periods of time in poorly heated homes or apartments – even tho se with temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees – can make you sick. Set your thermostat to at least 68 to 70 F.

And, if your residence is without heat temporarily, for example, in a power outage, try to stay with a relative or friend.

Today’s question is answered by Adina Wingate, PCOA’s public relations director, using information provided by the National Institute on Aging. E-mail: generations@tucsoncitizen.com

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