When most people think of hypothermia, they conjure up an image of someone who has fallen into an ice covered pond, or has gotten lost outside during the chill of winter. Many would be surprised to learn that hypothermia can happen to people inside their own homes, and that due to the poor economy coupled with the high cost of heating fuel, it is happening with much greater frequency than before. Hypothermia is a condition in which, due to low temperatures and exposure, the core body temperature, which is normally 98.6, drops below 96 degrees. This lower core body temperature can lead to erratic behavior, confusion, slurred speech, sleepiness and clumsiness. Ultimately death occurs. People who are at the greatest risk for indoor hypothermia are the elderly, young children, and people with chronic illnesses and those who are handicapped.
You’re As Cold As Ice…
The rest of the song goes, “You’re willing to sacrifice…” People are being forced to sacrifice many things
because of the current economic condition and proper heating of the home is one of those things, either through choice to save money, or because there is no money for heating fuel. Whatever the case, this is
risky business no matter what the reason, especially if indoor temperatures are being kept dangerously low over an extended period of time, for instance, day after day for weeks.
How cold is too cold? For someone who is elderly, or a young child, any temperature under 65 degree can put a person at risk for indoor hypothermia. Ideally, an indoor of 68 degree indoors should be the average for the elderly, young children, and people who are handicapped, or chronically ill.
At an indoor temperature of roughly 60 degrees people at risk become more susceptible to respiratory infections, from something as simple as the common cold, to the seasonal, and H1N1 flu, and pneumonia. Once a person begins to live in an environment that is kept at 54 degrees, or lower, the body’s extremities begin to get cold and in turn, this causes the blood pressure to rise. Because a person’s blood becomes thicker and stickier at a temperature of 54 degrees, blood clots can form more quickly, and easily. High blood pressure combined with blood inclined to form clots leads to much higher risks for a heart attack and stroke.
These factors can be made worse by certain medications, drinking too much alcohol, and not dressing properly. Also, people who are malnourished, or have little body fat for fuel, and those who are very sedentary are much less equipped to keep up their core body temperature. It takes a lot of calories to maintain a proper body temperature, and a bit of fat is insulation. Keeping moving helps to keep your body a bit warmer.
Cold Hands, Warm Heart–Not So Much
Added to the increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and respiratory infections due to low indoor temperatures, if you are cold for too long and go on to develop indoor hypothermia, you are far more apt to die from it, despite getting treatment, than a person who gets hypothermia from being exposed outdoors. Why is this so? Because after a period of low indoor temps, your body begins to adjust and does not send out the signals that you are hypothermic as quickly as does the body of someone who is trapped outdoors in a storm for a few hours.
At the same time, your body has been working overtime to keep your blood temperature up for such a long time that it is plain worn out by the time actual hypothermia sets in. A worn out body doesn’t have the resources to bounce back, even of help is received. Aside from severe respiratory infections, renal failure may be seen. At the same time, people who are indoors and develop hypothermia are far less likely to notice it, and treatment is received for the condition much later than it should be.
Oftentimes, people who have little, or no heat will use various unsafe methods to stay warm. These may include keeping the oven on day and night, using kerosene heaters that are not vented to the outdoors, and unsafe, old, space heaters. Wood stoves are not properly used, or are left unattended. All of these things increase the risk of death by fire or carbon monoxide poisoning greatly. Pretty scary, and sad, isn’t it?
Who Are You–Who, Who?
Who are the people who are living with little, or no heat in the winter? It is not just the homeless person, or the housebound elderly person. It could very well be your next door neighbor with the three little kids and the working husband. I know this because I lived in a home with no heat in the winter for a number of years. My husband worked but there just wasn’t enough for heating oil. I would often wake up to a house at 38 degrees, and I had a baby who became and toddler, and so forth. One year we made just under the limit for heating assistance. Last year, we had to wait for 2 months to get an appointment for the heating oil assistance program and once we had the appointment and found that we qualified, we were told that it would take 6 weeks to get a voucher. By then it was well into February. We had a wood stove and my goal every day was to reach 55 degrees in the living area.
We slept in the same bed, but some nights I would have to stop reading in bed as my hands had gotten numb from the cold. Now, I’ve gotten the heck out of Dodge, and live in a little cottage with my son. We have a wood stove that does a fine job, and there is a propane Rinnai heater for those really cold days. No one knew, really, that we were freezing. Not the neighbors, anyway. The people who did know were often in no position to help. Once, a very dear friend found out, and in less than an hour an oil truck pulled up to our house. I cried and cried.
What To Do, What To Do…
It is an unfortunate fact that there may be little that you can do to get heat in your home. Apply for heating assistance, or call the general assistance office in your city or town. Beyond that, the measures that you must take to stay warm and healthy are lifestyle changes. Dress warmly, and in layers, all of the time, even in bed. Wear a hat as much of your body heat is lost from your head. Keep moving and eat a healthy diet. Do not drink alcohol. That image of the St. Bernard with the cask of whiskey around his neck to save someone near frozen is all wrong. Drinking alcohol increases your risk of hypothermia a lot. Drink hot liquids, and eat hot foods and soups.
Take hot baths. Of course, if you have no heating oil you may have no hot water. If you can, go some where warm for part of the day–the mall, or the library. Also, look into community energy funds. Many communities have wonderful people who volunteer to raise money to provide heating assistance to those in need, and they are the nicest people in the world. Do not be too prideful to ask for help. Your life is at stake.
Be a Good Neighbor
In closing, I’d like to say that someone who cannot afford to heat their home is probably not going to announce it, or put a sign in their window, or on the front lawn. If you have neighbors who may be struggling, or you know someone who is elderly and no set up well financially, be a good neighbor and stop by for a visit from time to time. Maybe you can’t afford to fill their oil tank, but you might be able to assist them with finding resources, or take over a pot of soup. Maybe you can invite them over from time to time. Make certain that they have enough warm clothing and blankets. Not everyone does.
And while you are visiting, be sure to take notice of any signs of hypothermia, because the person with hypothermia is probably not going to see it in themselves. Call 911 if you are concerned about the health of anyone who may be at risk for indoor hypothermia. The sooner that you get them help, the better chance they have at recovering. We are all in this together, after all.
Even indoor hypothermia is a risk for the elderly
Low Indoor Temperature and Hypothermia in the Elderly