Dealing with the Winter Cold

snowmanDo you remember that wonderful old poem and song called Thanksgiving Day? The poem was written by Lydia Child. It evokes a festive horse and sleigh ride through the snow and starts with the lines "Over the river and through the wood to grandfather's house we go."

I sang that song as a child, and later sang it again with our own children and we actually did sing it on Thanksgiving Day trips to grandparents houses. It is the second verse of the song that pops into my mind every winter, however, the lines that go:

Oh how the wind does blow,
It stings the toes,
And bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Although it was just part of the fun in the sleigh ride to grandpas house, frostbite and its winter relative, hypothermia, can end the fun for anyone afflicted by them. And although people of any age may be victims of frostbite or hypothermia, older people are often the most susceptible. That may be due to factors such as medications, or specific health conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, or heart disease.

Of the two conditions, frostbite is the easiest to recognize. Symptoms include loss of feeling to areas of the body exposed to cold such as cheeks, nose, chin, forehead, ears, hands, and feet. The skin affected will have a white or pale appearance.

The frostbitten area should be wrapped in blankets or coats, etc., and should be warmed up gradually. Medical attention should be sought immediately.

Hypothermia is a more subtle, but very serious problem. It occurs when the body temperature falls to 95 degrees or less. Anyone who is exposed to severe cold without adequate protection may develop it, but older people have been known to develop hypothermia in much milder temperatures, and over a period of time a few days up to a few weeks.

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

Uncontrolled shivering can be a symptom also, but not always with older people. Some older people, for reasons not understood, may not be able to shiver or feel cold, which can obviously contribute to the problem.

Diagnosing hypothermia can be as simple as taking the temperature with a thermometer that has been shaken down well. If the temperature is below 96 degrees, the person should have immediate emergency medical help. If that help is not available, begin warming the person slowly, warming the trunk of the body first, not the arms and legs that can cause heart failure when the cold blood moves to the heart.

The best thing to do is to take measures to be sure that you and your older loved ones do not develop hypothermia in the first place. Since even slightly cool indoor temperatures can cause hypothermia in an older person, the temperature should never be set below 65 degrees during the winter. Even higher temperature settings 68 degrees and above may be safest, particularly for those with chronic illnesses or low activity levels.

Other ways to prevent accidental hypothermia:

Also, see information on Energy Assistance, help paying for utility bills.

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