Did you know that seniors are more susceptible to frostbite or hypothermia than other healthy adults? That’s because they produce less body heat and have trouble maintaining it due to a slowing metabolism, engage in less physical activity and have less muscle mass. In addition, heart and thyroid problems and certain medications may increase the risk. As temperatures start to dip this season, it’s important for you and/or your loved ones to know about frostbite and hypothermia, what to do and how to prevent it.
What is frostbite?
Frostbite occurs when your skin is exposed during extremely cold weather. The cold causes your skin and underlying tissues to freeze. In order to keep your body alive, your blood vessels narrow and blood (and oxygen) is diverted from your limbs to your vital organs. Eventually, ice crystals form and cells and blood vessels are damaged in affected areas. Because frostbite causes a loss of feeling, a person who has frostbite may not even be aware of it. Fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin are the most often affected areas, and extreme frostbite can lead to amputation.
According to the CDC, at the first signs of redness or pain in any area of the skin, the affected person should get out of the cold and/or protect any exposed skin. If the person has been out in very cold weather and experiences any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical care:
- a white or grayish-yellow skin area;
- skin that feels unusually firm or waxy;
If immediate medical care is not available, the CDC has the following recommendations:
- Find a warm location right away.
- Don’t walk on frostbitten feet or toes unless necessary — it could increase the damage.
- Put the affected area in warm water. The temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.
- Or, use body heat. For example, warm frostbitten fingers in the heat of an armpit.
- Avoid causing more damage by refraining from massaging or rubbing the affected area.
- Heating the affected area with lamps, or stove, fireplace, or radiator should be avoided because the affected area is numb and the area can be easily burned.
What is hypothermia?
Cold exposure that’s severe enough to cause frostbite also can cause hypothermia. Because, your body loses heat faster than it produces it when you’re exposed to very cold weather, if you are out in cold weather for too long, you may use up your body’s stored energy and your body temperature may become abnormally low (hypothermia). Hypothermia usually occurs in very cold temperatures, but if a person becomes is chilled and wet (from cold water, sweat or rain) it can occur even in 40-degree temperatures.
Because they produce less body heat, elderly people are especially susceptible to hypothermia – even more so when they are cold for too long and/or aren’t adequately dressed for the weather.
In adults, warning signs of hypothermia include:
- shivering, exhaustion;
- confusion, fumbling hands;
- memory loss, slurred speech;
If someone you know experiences any of these symptoms, take their temperature. If it’s below 95 degrees, seek medical help immediately. Because hypothermia affects the brain, a person with hypothermia may be unable to think clearly or move well. If emergency help isn’t available, the most important thing is to get the body warm. The CDC also recommends the following:
- Find a warm room or shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing.
- Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- If conscious, give the person warm beverages, but do not give alcoholic beverages.
- Once body temperature has risen, make sure the person is wrapped in a warm, dry blanket that covers the head and neck.
The best things a senior can do to prevent frostbite and hypothermia include:
- Make sure to wear weather-appropriate clothing the covers all skin;
- Wear many layers to protect from wind-chill or wetness;
- Eat well to ensure your body has the fuel it needs to help keep you warm;
- Avoid alcohol – it causes your body to lose heat more rapidly;
- Make sure your or your loved one’s home is heated and insulated from the cold.
While seniors are at a greater risk for frostbite and hypothermia, there’s no reason they need to avoid the outdoors in the winter; the key is in knowing the risks and limitations and taking the appropriate precautions to ensure your or your loved one’s safety throughout the season.