When the weather turns cold, seniors are particularly susceptible to health issues beyond the common cold. These can range from hyperthermia and frostbite to joint pain and heart attacks. Being proactive and aware of common health problems can help older adults – and their caregivers – avoid these issues or be prepared to handle them.
When older adults venture outside into the winter cold, they need to be cautious to avoid frostbite, which can damage the skin and deeper tissue. Areas commonly affected are the nose, ears, cheeks , chin, fingers and toes. Signs of frostbite include:
- Skin that is white, ashy, or grayish-yellow.
- Skin that feels waxy or numb
Seniors with poor circulation or heart disease may be more susceptible to frostbite. To avoid frostbite, dress warmly, cover all exposed skin, and limit time outside when temperatures are low.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when the body’s usual temperature of 98.6°F drops below 95°F. Seniors are prone to hypothermia because they typically have less body fat and are less able to sense temperature. Even seniors who don’t go outside in the winter can experience hypothermia if they don’t dress warmly or if inside temperatures aren’t warm enough.
Hypothermia symptoms to look out for include:
- Slurred speech or mumbling
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination
- Drowsiness or very low energy
- Confusion or memory loss
- Loss of consciousness
- Bright red, cold skin
Because hypothermia symptoms occur gradually and hypothermia can cause confusion, older adults may not be aware they are developing a serious health issue. To be proactive about staying warm inside and preventing hypothermia, seniors should:
- Set the heat thermostat to 68°F or higher
- Dress warmly and use a blanket over the legs when sitting to help maintain body temperature
- Wear long underwear under nightclothes and use extra covers
- Eat enough to maintain body weight
- Drink alcohol moderately, if at all, as drinking alcohol can cause heat loss
When the weather is cold, older adults with respiratory issues such as asthma and COPD can be at risk of lung spasms, which can cause breathlessness, coughing, or wheezing, similar to what occurs during an asthma attack. Wearing a hat can reduce heat loss, and wearing a scarf over the nose and mouth helps warm the air that is breathed in.
High Blood Pressure and Heart Attacks
Cold winter temperatures can increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels, common risk factors for heart attacks. As temperatures dip, blood vessels begin to tighten and blood flow quickens to help the body stay warm. These events can raise a person’s blood pressure. The best strategy to counteract this is to dress warmly in layers for both inside and outside activities, and wear a hat and gloves when outside to maintain body heat.
Flu and Pneumonia
Older adults are at increased risk of the flu developing into pneumonia. Warning signs of pneumonia include:
- Viral pneumonia: headache, fever, dry cough, muscle pain, exhaustion; advanced viral pneumonia can include a cough with white or clear phlegm.
- Bacterial pneumonia: shaking, chills, chest pain, shortness of breath, high fever, sweating, coughing up thick yellow or green phlegm.
Seniors and their caregivers should be on the lookout for flu symptoms that can progress into pneumonia.
Seniors and others who experience join pain or stiffness often claim that their symptoms increase in the winter as temperatures fall. Arthritis pain tips for winter weather can help alleviate these symptoms. These can include mild daily exercise to reduce joint stiffness, drinking lots of fluids, supplements, and indoor swimming sessions.
Courville Healthy Living Programs
The Courville Communities provide a wide range of activities and programs that support the health of residents throughout the year:
- Tai chi, Nintendo Wii, and yoga exercise programs with trained professionals
- Recreational and physical therapy programs
- Whirlpool tubs to ease aching muscles and joints
- Balance and fall prevention training
- Respiratory care
- Heart disease therapy
To learn more about our activities and programs that foster healthy living for seniors, contact us!