The biting winds and freezing temperature of winter can make the season treacherous as you get older. There's frostbite and hypothermia to be worried about, not to mention the hazards of slippery sidewalks.
“Knowing the risks, and how to avoid them, can help you stay safe and healthy all season,” says Claudene George, M.D., R.Ph., assistant professor of clinical medicine and geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Here are dangers and the precautions you should take.
Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops too low, to a core temperature of 95° F. It can develop when you’re outside in frigid weather even for short periods.
You can suffer hypothermia indoors, too, if the temperature is too low for a prolonged time. Older adults are susceptible to the cold because they have a slower metabolism and produce less body heat than younger people. If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes or arthritis or take certain drugs, such as over-the-counter cold remedies, you’re at increased risk.
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
• Skin that’s pale and cold to the touch
• Weakness, confusion, or unusual sleepiness
• Slowed breathing
• Problems walking
If you or someone you’re with shows signs of hypothermia, call 911 immediately. Remove any wet clothes and use a blanket to stay warm, but don’t directly apply a source of heat, such as a heating pad or hot water, as it can cause skin damage and even an irregular heartbeat.
To prevent hypothermia:
• Keep your indoor thermostat turned up to at least 68° F and check it often in extremely cold weather. If you have trouble paying your heating bill, call your local electric utility or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) toll-free at 866-674-6327 to find out if you qualify for aid.
• Stay inside if the weather is very cold.
• If you have to go out, dress appropriately.
• Wear loose-fitting layers of warm clothes. Wear gloves or preferably mittens, a warm coat, warm socks, boots, a scarf to cover your neck, and a hat to cover your head and ears.
Frostbite develops when your skin is exposed to freezing temperatures for too long, damaging healthy tissue. Your fingers, toes, ears, nose, and chin are most vulnerable. In extreme cases, it may lead to amputation.
Warning signs of frostbite include:
• White, ashy, or yellow-gray skin
• Skin that feels hard or waxy
To avoid frostbite, try to stay inside. If you have to go out in cold weather, cover all exposed skin. Go inside immediately if any area of your skin begins to turn red or hurts. If you think you have frostbite, run warm (not hot) water over the affected area. Call for medical help.
3. Icy walkways
Icy paths and sidewalks can be treacherous. Your best bet is to avoid icy areas. That’s not always possible, of course.
When you go out, wear nonskid boots that fit properly. If you use a cane, make sure it's equipped with a rubber end so it doesn’t slide out from under you. (Some canes can also be fitted with a pick-like extension that grips the ice.)
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for assistance if you’re worried about falling. At home, use salt to melt ice off walkways and driveways.
3. Snow removal
No one likes to shovel snow in bitter weather, but sometimes you have no choice. Remember to take it slow and easy.
In cold weather, your heart is already working hard just to keep you warm. Add too much strenuous activity to the burden and you can overstrain your heart. The risk, which includes having a heart attack, is greatest if you already have heart or circulatory problems.
Consider asking a friend or family member or hire someone to do the job for you. If you decide to remove snow yourself, consider purchasing a shovel that allows you to push instead of lift snow. Take frequent breaks and don’t try to remove all the snow at one time. Start clearing snow early and often to avoid shoveling heavy, packed snow.
Heed these tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons for proper snow-shoveling technique:
• Warm up as you would for any workout, such as by walking for 10 minutes.
• Don’t bend at the waist to shovel snow. Instead, squat in a wide stance with knees bent and your back straight. Lift with your legs.
• Don’t overload the shovel with snow. Scoop small amounts to avoid strain on your spine. Never twist and turn to throw snow behind you; this motion stresses your back.
If you use a snowblower, never use your hands to remove jammed snow. After turning off the engine, use a solid object to clear the chute.
4. Icy roads
We may grumble about reckless teenage drivers, but people 65 and older are involved in more accidents (per mile driven) than almost any other age group. Wintry roads are especially hazardous.
To steer clear of trouble:
• Make sure your tires are in good condition and appropriate for winter driving. Bring chains if you drive in areas that may require them.
• Keep emergency supplies in your car, including a first-aid kit, a blanket, a windshield scraper, a flashlight, and a bag of rock salt or kitty litter in case you get stuck in snow.
• Always bring your cell phone with you. If you tend to forget to charge it, keep an extra charger in your car.
• Check current driving conditions, either on the Internet or by calling your state department of transportation.
• Choose well-traveled roads, which are most likely to be well maintained.
When the weather outside is really frightful, you may find yourself snowed in—and sometimes without electricity. Here are precautions to take.
• Have enough food and water on hand to get through a week.
• Make sure you have at least a week’s supply of all the drugs and medical supplies (oxygen, hearing aid, and wheelchair batteries) you need.
• If you don’t have a flashlight, get one, and don’t forget to stock up on replacement batteries.
• Keep a battery-operated radio (with extra batteries) within easy access so you can hear weather alerts and local emergency instructions.
• Ask family or friends to check in with you to make sure you’re all right.
6. Fire and carbon monoxide poisoning
A fire in the fireplace or wood stove is a welcoming sight on a winter night. But fireplaces and stoves that aren’t properly vented can leak dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide and become fire hazards.
• Have your chimney and flue inspected once a year.
• Crack open a window when you use a kerosene stove.
• Make sure you have both smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors installed and operating properly.
• Keep space heaters at least three feet away from water and flammable items like drapery and bedding. Don’t place them on top of furniture.
• Never leave a fire unattended.
• Don’t use a stove to heat your home and never use an electric generator indoors.
As the days grow shorter, some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression linked to reduced light exposure. Even if you don’t suffer from SAD, the winter months, especially the holidays, can be a tough time if you find yourself alone. Symptoms of depression include overwhelming sadness, lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, and feelings of hopelessness.
If you experience depression, talk with your doctor. For some people, special lights that reproduce daylight can help chase away the blues. Medication also eases depression for some individuals.
Other ways to avoid becoming blue during the winter include:
• Making plans to get together with friends and family
• Staying physically active
• Treating yourself to things you enjoy doing.