Winter is the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately, that means that our seniors are at a higher risk of injury or illness. As the temperatures drop, the dangers of icy conditions outside rise as well as instances of weather-related illnesses, like hypothermia and influenza. Being aware of the hazards of the season and taking precautions are the best ways to make sure our loved ones stay safe and sound this winter. In this post, we will review some of the greatest winter threats to seniors.
With colder temperatures and icy conditions, seniors are particularly susceptible to injury while outside. Here are some of the top hazards facing seniors outside during the winter.
Hypothermia & Frostbite
As we age, our bodies make it harder to stay warm and safe outside in cold temperatures. It can be challenging for seniors to detect when they are getting too cold, which is dangerous because seniors lose body heat at a quicker rate than the average adult. Conditions like thyroid issues, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, memory loss, and some medications can negatively impact body heat retention as well. Together, these factors make seniors vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia happens when the body temperatures get too low. Some warning signs of hypothermia include the following:
- Cold, pale, or ashy skin
- Lack of energy
- Difficulty walking
- Slowed breathing and/or heart rate
Frostbite can occur when the cold weather actually damages the skin, possibly even damaging the bone. Frostbite usually affects body parts that are farthest away from the heart, like the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Warning signs of frostbite include the following:
- White, grayish-yellow, or ashy skin
- Hard or waxy skin
If you think a loved one may be experiencing hypothermia or frostbite, get them medical help right away.
To prevent hypothermia and frostbite, it’s important for seniors to bundle up. All exposed body parts should be covered up with proper winter wear: hats, gloves, mittens, winter coats, boots, and scarves. If possible, seniors should avoid prolonged exposure to the cold and avoid getting wet outdoors.
Snow and ice combined with darker days make walkways and parking lots treacherous in the winter. Seniors are already more susceptible to falling, and these conditions can significantly increase this risk. If seniors have to go out in the cold weather, try the following tips to avoid falls:
- Go out during daylight hours
- Clear snow from steps, walkways, and driveways
- Wear boots or shoes with non-skid soles
- Place a rubber tip or ice pick attachment on the end of canes
Even with plowed roads, cold weather conditions mean that seniors need to be particularly vigilant while driving. Seniors driving in the winter may want to consider the following tips:
- Winterize vehicle with cold-weather anti-freeze, proper tires, and windshield wipers
- Have a charged cell phone at all times
- Avoid untreated roads
- Keep an emergency kit in the car with first aid, blankets, extra warm clothes, jumper cables, ice scraper, shovel, water, dried food, flashlight, map, and rock salt, sand, or cat litter
Even indoors, seniors face greater risks during the winter. Below is an overview of some of the potential risks seniors face during the colder months.
Homes are more susceptible to fires in cold months because of the use of fireplaces and heaters. Here are some tips to maintaining safe fires and heating at home:
- Test smoke alarms on a regular basis
- Make sure that the fireplace is always attended
- Have a screen or door to prevent rogue flames and burning ash
- Place heaters in an open area, away from drapes and loose fabric and that they are turned off when not in use
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The risk for carbon monoxide poisoning also rises in colder months because of the use of fuel-powered heaters and fireplaces. Prevent dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide with adequate ventilation and maintenance of heating sources. Common warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Dull headache
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
Warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can be easy to miss; if you believe your loved one is presenting these symptoms, it is critical to get emergency care as soon as possible.
During the winter, illness is more common because people remain indoors and in close contact with others, making it easier for disease and illness to spread. However, even common illnesses can have potentially devastating effects on seniors. In particular, the flu and dehydration can be especially prevalent in senior loved ones with chronic medical conditions.
Flu season is in full swing from October to March, and new strains of the virus pop up every year. Getting vaccinated annually offers our loved ones protection against influenza and its potentially fatal effects for those with weaker immune systems.
Early detection and treatment of the flu can lower the risk for pneumonia, but it can be difficult to detect because early symptoms can resemble the common cold. These symptoms include a runny nose, congestion, a sore throat, and coughing.
When those symptoms are accompanied by a fever, body aches, chills, fatigue, weakness, chest discomfort, and/or a headache, it is time to seek medical attention right away. Antiviral medication may be prescribed within 48 hours of the first symptom and can reduce the severity and duration of the flu.
During winter months, we may not feel as thirsty as we do in warm weather. But as we age, our bodies can dehydrate quicker, putting seniors at risk for complications from dehydration. It is essential that aging loved ones stay hydrated at all times by drinking 4 or 5 glasses of water each day. Check out our blog post on addressing dehydration in seniors to learn more.
In the winter, there is less humidity in the air, and dry skin is more prevalent. Seniors may be more susceptible to the winter itch. Help them alleviate itching by helping them apply protective creams and lotions to. Apply lotion or cream after bathing on a daily basis for maximum effect.
Taking extra precautions with your loved ones this season can go a long way in preventing injuries and illnesses. Be vigilant about bundling up and staying safe outdoors, and be mindful of heating sources indoors. Watch for early signs and symptoms of illness and encourage your loved ones to seek medical attention if symptoms arise and persist. For more information on caring for seniors during the winter, contact us today.