Keeping warm, especially over winter, is a priority for infants as they have not yet developed their ability to regulate their body temperature. Others at risk are the elderly and the unwell. They are generally less mobile and their ability to generate body heat by moving around is restricted. This is made worse by poorly insulated houses or those designed for warmer climates, not the rigors of a harsh winter.
Symptoms of being too cold, or mild hypothermia, include reddened or blotchy skin that is cool to the touch. Babies suffering from moderate hypothermia are often sleepy or limp and don’t feed well. In adults, toddlers and children the symptoms of moderate hypothermia include confusion, tiredness and fast breathing.
If hypothermia persists and worsens then deterioration is rapid - both breathing and the pulse weaken to an eventual stop. Hypothermia is dangerous as the individual suffering from it is often unaware of the danger. It is often only treated when other people notice the changes. For those living alone it is imperative that their house and clothing is warm and dry, and that they have regular contact with others to ensure they are safe and well.
Treating hypothermia requires immediate medical intervention, so if you suspect this has happened then call the ambulance at once.
To keep warm and prevent hypothermia wear layers of clothing. The clothing does not need to be thick or bulky, but should ideally be made of natural fabrics, such as cotton or wool, or made of thermal fabric. They should be light and fit well - close to the body is best.
Bedding for babies should include a cotton or woollen layer under the bottom sheet and one or two light layers over the top sheet, tucked in well. Do not use wheat bags in bed with infants, but you may use a hot water bottle to warm the bedding and remove it before you place the baby in their bed.
Put infants to bed in clean and dry sleepwear that fits snugly, with no ribbons or ties. Closures should be press-studs, zippers or Velcro. Use a singlet underneath the sleepwear and a hat, socks and gloves if their head, feet and hands appear cold.
The elderly and unwell should consider similar light, close fitting sleepwear, in layers, with head, feet and hands covered if they feel the cold.
The temperature of bedrooms should be above 18oC, but not above 25oC, in order to prevent overheating and chilling. Aim for a daytime temperature of at least 16oC throughout all rooms that are used during the day. In order to achieve this you may need to consider your heating and insulation needs.
Information about insulation subsidies that your local District Health Board provide is available from community pharmacies. If you have chronic medical conditions, or hold a community services card, you may be eligible for subsidised help in achieving a warm house, safe for you and your family to prevent hypothermia. Consult your community pharmacist; they can help with advice about how to keep warm, as well as managing the after effects of mild hypothermia.
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