About Hypothermia and Heat Stress

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia means low body temperature. It can occur when a person is exposed to cold and loses body heat faster than it can be replaced. The condition can be dangerous because normal body functions can be affected when body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Hypothermia can, in fact prove fatal if not recognized and treated properly. Older adults who are more sensitive to cold and have a greater risk of developing hypothermia than younger people. Especially among the elderly, temperatures need not be below freezing for hypothermia to occur.

Hypothermia Symptoms

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Shivering
  • Slow breathing
  • Sleepy and hard to wake up
  • Puffy face
  • Cold, stiff muscles
  • Stomach cold to touch
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trembling on one side of body or in one arm or leg

Caring for a Hypothermia Victim


  • Stay calm
  • Call a doctor, ambulance, rescue squad or local emergency room
  • Protect the person from the cold with blankets, quilts, towels or extra clothes


  • Give the person hot drinks or hot food
  • Raise the person's legs or place hot water bottles on their feet
  • Massage the person's arms or legs
  • Place the person in a hot shower or bath
  • Give the person any alcohol or drugs

Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to cold slows the heart beat, dulls the senses and weakens and confuses the victim so that he or she may not realize the danger or the need to seek help. Relatives and friends sometimes fail to recognize the symptoms, too.

Protect Yourself From Hypothermia

Dressing warmly is the best way to protect yourself against hypothermia. Room temperatures below 70 degrees F. can be dangerous if not dressed warmly enough. Wool is the best material for cold weather. Synthetics are better than cotton. You should dress in layers, since the air between the layers acts as insulation to help prevent loss of body heat. Loose-fitting clothing also will trap more heat around your body. Down or quilted synthetic clothing provides good protection for outdoor wear. Wear a hat or other head covering and wrap a warm scarf around your neck. Mittens are warmer than gloves.

Be Alert to the Risk of Hypothermia

Anyone taking medication for high blood pressure, nervousness, depression or sleeping may find it difficult to keep warm and should be especially cautious about hypothermia. Poor diet and malnutrition increase risk. Alcohol, because it increases the rate of heat loss from the body, acts similarly. Limited physical activity and living alone in a cold house also place older adults at greater risk of developing hypothermia.

Hot Weather Can Be Dangerous Too

Heat stress, which can be particularly dangerous for older adults, is most likely to occur in hot, humid weather, when temperatures reach 90 degrees F. and above. It can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heart failure and stroke. The use of prescription drugs for high blood pressure, nervousness, depression, poor circulation or sleeping can make a person more vulnerable to the heat.

Symptoms of Heat Stress

If you experience these symptoms during hot weather, you should seek medical help: dizziness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, throbbing headache, lack of perspiration, mental changes and breathing problems

How to Avoid Heat Stress

  • Slow down. Physical activity produces body heat and overexertion adds to the heart's workload.
  • Avoid hot foods and heavy meals. When the weather is hot, drink water often, in reasonable amounts.
  • Wear the right clothing. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting cotton clothing in hot weather.
  • Spend the hottest hours indoors. Keep out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day. Use an air conditioner or fans. Cool off by taking a cool bath or shower.