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January 5, 2013

From the Office: Stay warm during cold winter months to avoid hypothermia

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The Daily Star

---- — The winter months can be a difficult and dangerous time for anyone living in this area of the country where temperatures regularly fall below freezing. 

With rising fuel costs, seniors are making decisions in turning back their thermostat dial to conserve on fuel. In most parts of the country, a 60-degree day hardly counts as a cold snap, yet if a senior lives in a poorly insulated home and keeps the heat off, such a day might be chilly enough to cause hazardous drop in the body temperature. 

As people get older, their bodies become a little less efficient at regulating their body temperature. If the body temperature drops below 94 degrees, hypothermia starts setting in.

Hypothermia symptoms usually start gradually. As the symptoms progress, the ability to think and move often become clouded. The individual may be unaware that they need help. As the thought process is impaired, they fail to recognize that they are becoming colder.

We all need to be aware of the warning signs of hypothermia, and ways to prevent hypothermia from occurring.

Symptoms of hypothermia may include:

• Confusion, forgetfulness, or drowsiness

• Slurred speech

• Uncontrollable shivering

• Slow shallow breathing

• Stumbling and loss of coordination

• Stiff muscles

• Numbness

• Slow irregular heartbeat

• Weak pulse

What to do if you suspect hypothermia:

If you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, first try to take the person’s temperature. If the temperature is 96 degrees or below, call 911. While waiting for help, the best thing you can do for the individual is to keep her warm by wrapping her in a blanket, towel or whatever is handy. DO NOT put her in a hot bath or shower or offer alcohol, and furthermore, do not rub any part of the person’s body since her skin may be fragile. You can even use your own body heat by getting close to the person.

Ways to prevent hypothermia:

• Make sure the home is kept warm by keeping the thermostat set at least 68 to 70 degrees. If the home is kept mildly cool at temperatures between 60 to 65 degrees this can lead to mild hypothermia especially in the elderly.

• Maintain proper humidification in the home. Use a humidifier, or place pans of water on the stove (wood burning) or radiator.

• Make sure the home is properly weatherized. This includes closing all gaps with insulation and caulking.

• Limit your time outdoors. If you must be outside during cold weather, wear warm, layered clothing made of natural fibers. You should wear a hat, warm socks and gloves to reduce heat loss.

• Stay indoors on windy days. Even if the temperature appears to be moderate, wind chill can substantially increase your risk of hypothermia. 

• Drink plenty of fluids. 

•Avoid alcohol and nicotine.

• Follow a healthy diet. Older adults tend to burn more calories during the winter months due to the body having to create more body heat.

Remember watch the weather forecasts, if they are predicting cold or windy weather then stay inside if at all possible. Homes and apartments with thermostat set between 60 to 65 degrees, can lead to illness. Remember; keep your home warm by setting your thermostat for at least 68 to 70 degrees.

Office for the Aging of Delaware County wishes each and everyone a happy and healthy 2013.

Wayne Shepard is director of the Otsego County Office for the Aging. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/seniorscene.