As we move into the winter, it is important to know about the health risks for older adults that may be present during the cold and icy winter months.


Older adults experience an elevated risk of hypothermia, which occurs when the body temperature drops to dangerous levels. This can happen when one is out in the cold for a long time and your body is losing heat faster than it can be produced. Symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, and slurred speech (CDC). Hypothermia is a serious medical issue. You should call 911 if you or someone you care for show signs of hypothermia.

The best way to prevent hypothermia is to limit the amount of time you need to spend outdoors. When you do need to go outside, dress warmly with layers and wear hats, gloves, and scarves. Change out of wet clothing to keep it from chilling your body.


Frostbite can also occur as a result of exposure to cold temperatures. It freezes the skin and can cause damage all the way down to tissues and bones. In severe cases, frostbite may necessitate amputations. Symptoms include cold skin, numbness, discolored skin (red, white, bluish-white, grayish-yellow, purplish, brown or ashen), hardened or waxy skin, or blistering (Mayo Clinic). It most commonly occurs on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. People with heart disease or poor circulation face the greatest risk.

Similar to preventing hypothermia, the best prevention against frostbite is limiting time outdoors in cold, wet, and windy weather. When you are outside, dress warmly with hats, gloves, and scarves.


Icy roads and sidewalks are a major risk factor for falls for people of all ages. Older adults, however, are most likely to suffer fractures and other injuries from these falls, including those that can lead to hospitalization and loss of independence.

To reduce falls risk, walk on cleared walkways as much as possible. Give yourself extra time to get where you are going so that you can move slowly and carefully. Try to have sand or salt spread on icy areas by your front or back door. Your choice of footwear is also important – wear shoes or boots that are non-skid, rubber-soled, and low-heeled (National Institute of Aging).

Auto Accidents

Ice, snow, and sleet also make for perilous driving conditions. Be mindful of the weather conditions before you head out in your car and delay traveling in wintry weather if at all possible. Always bring a cell phone with you when you are driving so you can call for help if you do encounter any emergencies. It is also recommended that you “winterize” your car to make sure that your tires, battery, brakes, and windshield wipers are in good working order (National Safety Council).

Fire Safety

Home heating is the second-most common cause of home fires (behind only kitchen accidents). To reduce your home fire risk, keep anything flammable at least three feet away from fireplaces, wood stoves, space heaters and radiators. If you use a space heater, plug it directly into a wall outlet (no extension cords or power strips) and unplug it when you leave the room or go to bed. If you smoke cigarettes, you should do so outside and make sure your cigarettes are put all the way out (use deep ashtrays or put water on cigarette butts before throwing them out) (U.S. Fire Administration).

It is also important that older adults make plans in case there is a fire emergency in the home. Check that all smoke detectors are working properly (Philadelphians can call 3-1-1 to request a smoke detector if needed). Keep eyeglasses, hearing aids, canes/walkers, and a phone next to the bed in case you need to evacuate quickly.

There are many things to like about winter. Taking the proper precautions and being aware of weather-related health risks can make sure we enjoy the winter months in the safest ways possible!


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