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Elderly people living in poorly heated homes are vulnerable to hypothermia.

Elderly people living in poorly heated homes are vulnerable to hypothermia.
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2-minute read

If you are exposed to prolonged cold conditions, whether outdoors or in an unheated house, you can get hypothermia. You are at greater risk if you are elderly, very young, underweight, or in poor health.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when the body's temperature drops from the usual healthy 37 °C to below 35 °C. A drop in body temperature to 32 °C or lower can be fatal.

What causes hypothermia?

You may get hypothermia if you spend time in air below 10 °C, or in water below 20 °C. Some medical conditions can also make people susceptible to hypothermia.

Hypothermia symptoms

People with mild hypothermia feel cold. They may also:

  • be shivering uncontrollably
  • have cool, pale skin
  • be clumsy and walk unsteadily
  • be confused and drowsy

People with severe hypothermia might have stopped shivering. They might:

  • breathe slowly
  • have a slow heart rate
  • have dilated pupils
  • be in a coma

They might even look like they are dead.

If you suspect someone has severe hypothermia, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.

Hypothermia treatment

If you suspect someone has hypothermia:

  • move them to somewhere warm
  • take off any wet clothes
  • warm their head, neck, chest and groin with blankets or wrapped hot water bottles, or get someone warm to hold them
  • keep them still
  • give them warm drinks, but not alcohol
  • if you are concerned, take them straight to the hospital

Don't make them exert themselves, use direct heat (such as hot water), or rub them vigorously.

If they look like they're dead, don't assume they are dead. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance, and give CPR.

Hypothermia prevention

If you live or work outdoors in a cold climate, or are planning a camping or hiking trip in the cold, you can reduce your risk of hypothermia by:

  • checking the weather forecast
  • limiting the amount of time you spend outdoors in the cold
  • planning 'warm-up' breaks
  • dressing warmly, including wearing a wind resistant jacket, gloves and a hat
  • avoiding alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes, which can make you more sensitive to cold
  • asking your doctor if your medication could make you susceptible to cold
  • making sure your home is adequately heated

Make sure you cover your children's heads when they are out in the cold - kids can lose body heat more quickly than adults.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2018

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