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Senior Correspondent

Q. I retired and moved from northern Minnesota to Florida. I was wondering if there is any way that someone in the Sunshine State can get hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when your body doesn’t maintain a normal temperature, which is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When your core temperature drops to 95 degrees, you are suffering from hypothermia, which can be lethal.

Can your internal temperature drop to 95 or below in Florida? Yes. You can get hypothermia in an air-conditioned environment. It can strike you if you are soaked in the rain on a cool, windy day, or if you fall into chilly water. Water colder than 70 F can begin to cause hypothermia quickly.

People older than 65 years are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because they tend to suffer from illnesses or take medications that interfere with regulating body temperature. Also, older adults often produce less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity.

Seniors make up about half of the annual fatalities from hypothermia in the United States.

Low body temperature impairs the brain, so hypothermia is especially dangerous because its victims may not know they’re in trouble. Severe hypothermia eventually leads to cardiac and respiratory failure, then death.

Hypothermia comes on gradually. Shivering is a common and obvious sign. Shivering is a natural response that increases muscle cell activity and generates heat.

But, shivering alone does not mean you have hypothermia. Healthcare professionals recommend looking for “umbles,” too. These are stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles.

Watch for these specific symptoms: confusion or sleepiness; slowed, slurred speech; shallow breathing; weak pulse or low blood pressure; changes in behavior such as apathy; change in appearance such as pale skin; poor body control or slow reaction times.

If you suspect that someone has hypothermia, call for emergency medical treatment. Here are some first-aid tips to follow until professional help arrives:

  • In general, try to warm the victim. Replace wet clothing. Share your body heat.
  • First warm the chest, neck, head, and groin with an electric blanket or warm compresses. Don’t use direct heat from a lamp or hot water.
  • Don’t warm the limbs because you will drive cold blood to the heart, lungs and brain; this will lower the core body temperature. Use an electric blanket or warm compresses.
  • If the person's breathing has stopped or appears dangerously low or shallow, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately if you're trained in that procedure.
  • Provide warm non-alcoholic beverages. Alcohol lowers the body's ability to retain heat. Forget that image of the St. Bernard with the brandy keg.
  • Don't rub the victim, especially an older person who may have thin skin.
  • Handle people with hypothermia gently because they're at risk of cardiac arrest.

A typical scenario that can lead to hypothermia is being stranded in the snow while driving. The following are some valuable recommendations for surviving this type of ordeal:

  • Attach something that is brightly colored to the car antenna so you can be seen.
  • Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets, or newspapers.
  • Stay awake.
  • Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe—this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.
  • Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.

If you would like to read more columns, you can order a copy of “How to be a Healthy Geezer” at www.healthygeezer.com.

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