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Be Prepared for Winter

When the weather gets cold, elderly persons may develop a reduction in their body temperature more easily, as a result of decreased ability in temperature control and decrease in subcutaneous fat. Excessive drop in the body temperature can lead to hypothermia. Elderly persons with chronic illnesses, such as chronic respiratory diseases or asthma, are also vulnerable to disease deterioration in cold weather.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is defined as a fall in the core body temperature to below 35°C (95°F). Factors such as diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, use of hypnotics and alcohol predispose to the development of hypothermia.

In mild hypothermia, the victim will have cold skin especially of hands and feet, pallor, shivering, unsteady gait, slurred speech and confusion. Some elderly persons may not have the shivering response. Moderate hypothermia is characterized by loss of shivering, muscle rigidity, slowing down of heart beat, and gradual loss of consciousness. Severe hypothermia leads to irregular heart beat, fall in blood pressure, and total loss of consciousness. The heartbeat finally stops, and the victim is frozen to death.

Therefore, anyone suspected to be suffering from hypothermia should be taken to see the doctor or the hospital right away. Although hypothermia is uncommon in Hong Kong, elderly persons should take appropriate precautions to keep warm so as to safeguard their health and well-being.

Be prepared for the cold weather

1. Be alert to weather changes

Pay close attention to weather changes, especially when the temperature falls quickly within a short period of time, or when the Hong Kong Observatory is issuing the cold weather warning. The ‘Dial-a-Weather’ hotline of the Hong Kong Observatory: 1878 200.

2. Put on adequate clothing

Put on adequate dry, light, comfortable, and permeable clothes that are good for keeping warm. Do not put on clothes that are too bulky, and do not dress too tightly, which may restrict blood circulation or hinder body movements. Cotton underwear is better than woolen materials, which may cause itchiness. Change soiled napkins and pants frequently for those who are incontinent. Be sure to keep the head, neck, hands and feet warm, with the use of hat, scarf, gloves and socks.

3. Adequate food and drinks

Consume hot and easily digestible food and beverage with higher calories, like hot milk, soup, congee, noodles and rice. Ensure an adequate amount of food and drink with small frequent meals if appropriate. Have a well balanced diet and avoid fatty and salty food. Do not misbelieve that alcohol is a good means for keeping warm. Although one feels warm immediately after drinking alcohol, it actually accelerates the loss of body heat, as alcohol dilates blood vessels.

4. Keeping the home environment warm

Keep the home environment warm but well ventilated. To keep out draughts, repair cracks in windows, doors and wall. When using electric heaters, ensure adequate indoor ventilation, and keep the heater away from the entrance, the corridor and combustibles. Do not overload the electricity supply and avoid overheating, which may lead to fire or burn injuries. Among the different types of heaters, the oil-filled heater is safer for elderly persons with diminished sensation of heat, such as those with diabetes mellitus and spinal cord problem, do not use hot water bottles or other body warmers directly on the skin.

5. Appropriate activities

Remain indoors or in places with sunlight. When going outdoors, put on adequate clothing to keep warm, and avoid prolonged exposure to cold or windy environment. Continue with usual daily activities. Do more exercise to generate heat and improve blood circulation, as well as to maintain the flexibility of joints.

6. Preventive health measures

Continue with regular health checkups and follow-ups, so that conditions which may predispose to hypothermia, such as diabetes mellitus and hypothyroidism, can be detected early and treated in time.

7. Care and concern for the elderly

The encouragement and concern for the elderly from family members and friends can help ensure appropriate precautions are being taken. If you happen to know of a single elderly person living alone or with chronic illnesses, give him/her a call or pay a visit. In case of need the cold shelters provided by the Home Affairs Department can be made use of.

With appropriate precautions against the cold, we can all enjoy the winter in warmth and comfort.