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Hypothermia in the Elderly and First Aid for Low Body Temperature


Hypothermia in the ElderlyThe body maintains a constant temperature of around 98.6F or about 37C which is needed for it to function properly. Although the normal body temperature can fluctuate slightly and even drop but still be within a normal range, it should not dip lower than 95F or about 35C. When it does so, certain organs cannot function properly and person is at risk of death. This condition where the body’s temperature is below 95F (35C) is known as hypothermia. It is a common condition in colder climates and the elderly are of greatest risk, even in warm environments.

Maintaining Normal Body Temperature

Little thought is given to just how efficient the body is with temperature regulation. Heat is generated by the constant metabolic processes occurring within the body that is responsible for all activity like digestion, blood circulation, gas exchange and waste production. In order to maintain a normal body temperature, there has to be a balance between the heat generated and the heat lost to the environment. Excess heat is rapidly dissipated by increasing blood flow to the skin and with the evaporation of perspiration on the skin surface.

If the body temperature starts to drop too low then the blood flow to the skin is reduced, the hairs on our skin stand up (goose flesh) to slow down movement of air over the skin surface and metabolism increases to generate more heat, sometime by the process of shivering. All of these activities are carefully coordinated to maintain the body temperature around 98.6F (37C) and is known as thermoregulation..

Causes of Hypothermia in the Elderly

Hypothermia can occur in any person and is more likely when a person is in very cold environments with inappropriate clothing or immersed in water for too long. In the elderly, hypothermia can also occur from insufficient heating within the home during the cold months and air conditioning even during the summer months.The reason why the elderly are so susceptible to hypothermia is an an age-related deterioration in the body’s mechanism to regulate its temperature. Alcohol may also play a role in hypothermia as it speeds up the loss of heat, and not warm the body as commonly thought.

Sometimes the temperature control mechanisms may also be severely compromised with certain diseases that cause more blood flow to the periphery with greater heat loss, or a diminished metabolism thereby leading to less heat generation. Chronic medication used by the elderly can also contribute to these dysfunction mechanisms in temperature regulation. The elderly may also not be able to reach appropriate heat sources particularly when bed ridden. Another contributing factor that is not given as much attention is the possible financial component as heat can mean high power and gas bills at a time in life where a person is often on a tight budget.

Symptoms of Hypothermia in the Elderly

The most prominent symptoms at the outset are shivering, paleness of the skin and even bluish tinge of the fingers and toes, and an overall lack of energy. These symptoms are also seen when a person is feeling very cold even without hypothermia. As the condition progresses, a person may feel drowsiness, become disorientated and confused, and experience difficulty thinking.

A person may become apathetic, be stumbling, speech is slurred, the pulse becomes weak and the breathing is slow and shallow. Consciousness gradually drops and a person may feel extremely sleepy or eventually lose consciousness. These symptoms, like the early symptoms, are not always specific for hypothermia. The effects of certain medication, chronic diseases and nutritional deficiencies which are more common in the senior years may mimic hypothermia symptoms particularly in the elderly.

First Aid Measures for Hypothermia

Medical services need to be requested even if a person is conscious. In the meantime, various first aid measures should be implemented to halt the loss of heat and help to raise the body temperature. These first aid measures can be performed by any person, not only a health care professional.

  • Gently assist a person or carry the person out of the cold and towards a warm environment.
  • Help the person or carefully cut away any clothing that is wet.
  • Do not expose the person to direct heat as this can affect the skin and heart. Rather cover the person with blankets.
  • Help the person to warm up with a warm compress on the chest, neck or back. Sharing body heat is another effective method.
  • Warm beverages can also help with increasing the body temperature. It should only be given to a person who is conscious and can either drink themselves and able to swallow properly.
  • Do not leave the person alone. Constantly monitor the breathing and pulse. Speak to the person in order to keep them awake and monitor the mental state.

Medical treatment like blood and airway rewarming needs to be done by a medical professional. Wait for the emergency medical services to arrive at the scene and brief them on the situation that caused the hypothermia and any improvement or deterioration in the person’s condition.

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