A senior woman wears a heavy winter jacket and uses walking poles to walk outside on a snowy day.

Winter brings some of the most dangerous weather conditions for older adults, including freezing weather, snow, and ice. Cold weather can also bring power outages, poor driving conditions, and the need for snow removal. Because of these factors, seniors are at a higher risk of weather-related health problems and injuries, such as hypothermia, frostbite, and falls on ice and snow. We’ll explain some of these common issues, how to spot health concerns, and provide winter safety tips for seniors.

Why can cold weather be dangerous for seniors?

As people age, changes in the body increase the risk of cold-weather issues, some of which can be fatal. Older adults are more likely to lose body heat than younger adults because they may be less physically active. They may also have less body fat and a slower metabolism, which can also contribute to feeling colder more easily. 

In addition to physical challenges, cold weather and fewer daylight hours can limit social interaction and can contribute to feelings of depression and isolation

Some basic preparations and prevention can reduce the risks associated with cold weather and make the season more bearable — if not pleasurable — for older adults.

Increased risk of falls 

Snow and ice buildup during the winter is one of the major causes of falls among the elderly. Falls can result in major injuries, including bruises and bone fractures.

Tips to avoid falling during the winter

  • Try to stay indoors during wet and icy conditions.
  • Accept help from younger family members or hire someone to do outside chores like shoveling snow.
  • If you need to go outdoors, ensure the sidewalks are cleared. 
  • Wear appropriate winter shoes for good grip on the surface of sidewalks.
  • Use snow poles for more support while walking in the snow.
  • Avoid going alone for walks in snowy or icy conditions.

COVID-19, the flu, and other viruses

The immune system weakens with age, so seniors are more susceptible to the flu and COVID-19. When people spend more time indoors, as they typically do during cold weather, germs are more likely to spread. This is why older adults are more susceptible to getting sick. Illnesses like the flu and COVID-19 are more likely to affect older adults more severely than other age groups. As a high-risk population, older adults should take great precautions to avoid getting the flu or COVID-19. 

Tips to avoid getting COVID-19 or the flu

  • The CDC recommends that older adults get COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters, and flu shots, as older adults who have not been vaccinated are at greater risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19 or flu complications or dying from the virus. 
  • Wear a face mask when going to indoor public places.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to reduce the spread of germs.
  • If you plan to see friends or family, discuss whether anyone has recently had COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms. If they have, reschedule for when everyone is healthy.

Driving accidents

Drivers aged 70 and up have a higher rate of car accidents than other age groups in the United States. Winter road conditions worsen due to snow and wet or icy surfaces, making car accidents more likely to happen.

Tips to avoid driving accidents

  • Always check the weather conditions before going out in a car.
  • Try to avoid driving in the snow.
  • Avoid driving in the early morning and at night when temperatures are lower, as this increases the risk of slippery roads due to frozen water.
  • Install winter tires before the winter season starts.
  • Avoid breakdowns by getting your car serviced before the cold weather sets in.
  • Instead of driving, consider taking a taxi or another public transportation.
  • Consider using delivery services for groceries instead of driving.
  • Ask a family member to drive you to run errands instead of driving.

Isolation and depression

Winter can be a difficult season for older adults since more want to stay indoors and there are fewer group activities. This isolation could impact the mental health of older adults, resulting in increased depressive symptoms. Family members should make sure that their loved ones don’t feel alone.

Tips to avoid depression and isolation

  • Use phone calls or video calls to communicate with friends, loved ones, and family members.
  • Keep yourself entertained at home by playing board games or other activities.
  • Let ample sunlight into your living space during daylight hours, as healthy amounts of safe sunlight exposure can help reduce depressive symptoms.
  • Engage in physical activity. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress and help improve mood. Even when inside, you can still get physical activity, such as chair and bed exercises, into your daily routine.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops dangerously low. A body temperature of 95°F (35°C) or below in an elderly person can lead to various health problems, including liver damage, a heart attack, kidney problems, and even death.

Signs of hypothermia

  • Shivering.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Memory loss.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Confusion.

See a doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms, and your body temperature is much lower than normal, especially under 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tips to avoid hypothermia

  • Maintain a healthy diet and stay hydrated.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Check the weather before leaving home: Find out what the current weather conditions are and what they will be later in the day so you can plan accordingly.
  • Wear more layers when going out: Layer up with long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater or sweatshirt, a jacket, a cap, a scarf, thick gloves, wool or thick socks, and winter-appropriate shoes.
  • Have emergency supplies in the car: Before you leave, make sure you have extra blankets, hand and foot warmers, and a cap in your car.
  • Don’t stay outside for too long.
  • If the weather conditions are not good, try to stay at home.
  • Try to do indoor exercises instead of going out for walks during the cold weather.
  • Keep your house warm: Keep the indoor temperature above 68°F (20°C) while staying inside.
  • Indoor clothing: Even if you stay indoors, consider wearing a sweater and a cap to stay warm. Wear slippers or socks to keep your feet comfortable on the floor.
  • Avoid heat loss from windows/doors: Close drapes and window blinds, and put a rolled towel in front of all outside doors to keep drafts out.
  • Annually, get your fireplace and HVAC system inspected to ensure they are in good working order.

Frostbite

Frostbite is when your body suffers skin damage that can reach all the way to the bone. It happens more often in parts of the body far from the heart, like the fingers, toes, chin, nose, cheeks, and ears.

Signs of frostbite

  • The body part is cold and has a prickling sensation.
  • Numbness
  • Depending on the usual skin color, frostbitten skin can look red, white, blue-white, gray-yellow, purple, or brown. 
  • Skin appears waxy.
  • Blistering after the area of the body warms back up.

See a doctor if you experience a fever, have increased pain or inflammation of the area, or have new and unexplainable symptoms.

Tips to avoid frostbite

  • Cover most of the body when going out in cold temperatures.
  • Use hand/feet warmers.
  • Use thick socks and hand gloves.
  • Warm up your fingertips in your pocket while outside in the cold to increase blood flow to your fingers.
  • If you suspect that you or someone else has frostbite, get medical attention immediately.
  • In the case of mild frostbite, hold the affected area under warm water (not hot water).

Fires and carbon monoxide poisoning

During the winter, people may use a fireplace or other heating sources such as kerosene, natural gas, or others. These heating sources can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if they are not maintained and vented properly. Because carbon monoxide cannot be smelled or seen, it is a significant threat. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and even death.

Other heat sources that can cause issues are space heaters and electric blankets. If these products are old, their safety can be compromised. Or, if they’re left on and close to flammable objects, they can cause fires.

Tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning and fire risks

  • Have your chimneys and flues inspected by professionals.
  • Install smoke detectors and battery-powered carbon monoxide detectors in key positions, particularly where fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, or kerosene heaters are used.
  • Space heaters should be kept at least 3 feet away from anything that could catch fire, such as drapes, beds, and furniture.
  • Never use a gas stove, charcoal grill, or any other cooking device intended for outdoor use indoors to heat your home.