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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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Hypothermia

3-minute read

Hypothermia is a medical emergency. Go to your nearest hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance if you or someone else is experiencing symptoms.

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 life threatening.

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.

What are symptoms of hypothermia?

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 hypothermia, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.

How is hypothermia treated?

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.

How can hypothermia be prevented?

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

Young children and babies can lose body heat more quickly than adults as they have less muscle mass. Limit their exposure to extreme cold weather and make sure their heads are covered when they are out in the cold weather.

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

Last reviewed: March 2020


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