Hypothermia: A cold weather hazard

NIH advice helps older adults stay safe

February 2, 2011

Kim Calvin | 301-496-1752 |

Older adults are especially vulnerable to a drop below normal body temperature, called hypothermia, which can be deadly if not treated quickly. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, has some advice to help older people avoid hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when a person's body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time. With advancing age, the body's ability to endure long periods of exposure to cold is reduced.

Older people also are at risk for hypothermia because their bodies’ responses to cold can be diminished by certain illnesses, such as diabetes, and by some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies. In addition, older adults may be less active and generate less body heat. As a result, hypothermia may develop even after exposure to relatively mild cold weather or a small drop in temperature.

A good way to identify someone with hypothermia is to look for confusion or sleepiness, slowed or slurred speech, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, weak pulse, poor control over body movements or slow reactions. If a thermometer is available, temperature should be measured. If it’s 96 degrees or lower, call 911 for emergency help.

Some tips for older people:

  • Wear several layers of loose clothing when it is cold. The layers will trap warm air between them. Tight clothing can keep blood from flowing freely and lead to loss of body heat.
  • Wear a hat, scarf, gloves or mittens, in addition to other warm clothes, when outside in cold weather. A significant amount of body heat can be lost through your head, and hands and feet are the first body parts to get cold.
  • To keep warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.
  • Make sure your home is warm enough. Set the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can trigger hypothermia in older people.
  • Check with the doctor to see if any medications (prescription or over the counter) you are taking may increase risk for hypothermia.

Because heating costs are high, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funding to help eligible low-income families meet home energy needs. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists qualified families with heating, cooling, and insulating homes to make them more energy efficient and reduce energy costs. Individuals interested in applying for energy assistance should contact their local or state LIHEAP agency. Contact the National Energy Assistance Referral Program (1-866-674-6327) or the Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116). More information is available at: or

The NIA has free information about hypothermia. To order the fact sheet, Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard, or the brochure, Stay Safe in Cold Weather!, call toll free 1-800-222-2225. La hipotermia: un peligro del clima frío is also available or go online at

The NIA leads the federal government effort conducting and supporting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. The Institute’s broad scientific program seeks to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life. For more information on research, aging, and health, go to

The NIH—the nation's medical research agency—includes 27 institutes and centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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