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Why older people are more vulnerable in winter

As we get older, changes in our bodies can make us feel colder more often, and mean we’re more likely to develop health problems caused by cold weather such as frostbite, hypothermia and respiratory problems.

Hypothermia is potentially serious if not treated quickly, particularly for older people. NHS Choices offers advice on the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, including what to do if you find someone who has become hypothermic.

Cold snaps can also increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks because blood vessels constrict, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. 

What you can do to prepare for a cold snap

If the weather forecast suggests freezing temperatures are on their way, there are several things you can do to ensure you stay safe and healthy. 

Protect your health

Order repeat prescriptions in good time if cold weather might make it harder for you to get to the pharmacy. While you’re there, stock up on cheap cold and flu remedies to keep at home if you need them. 

Make sure you have your annual flu jab – it’s free if you’re over 65. It’s your best chance of avoiding the nasty illness. Over 65s are also eligible for a one-off pneumo jab, which protects against pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia. 

Check your boiler

Identify problems before they start to affect you by ensuring you get your boiler serviced each year. Remember, gas boilers must be serviced by a Gas Safe registered engineer.

You can find a reputable tradesperson in your area using the Which? Trusted Traders scheme

Receive expert guidance on caring for older people. Our emails are free and you can stop them any time.

Prevent falls

If you’re venturing outside, make sure to choose shoes with non-slip soles to protect against falls. 

A mixture of sand and salt can help you keep your footing when it’s icy out. Your local council may provide a free bag for you. 

There are plenty of other things you can do to help prevent falls. Read our article on the Common causes of falls for more tips. 

Ensure you have enough food 

If your local supermarket will be a tricky journey in the cold, it’s best to have some extra food (with a long shelf life) in the house over the winter months.

You could always order your food shopping online and get it delivered to your house.

Clothes and bedding for cold weather 

Your clothes can make a big difference to your temperature. Several layers of thin clothing will keep you warmer than one thick layer. 

  • A scarf pulled up over your mouth can help warm up the air you’re breathing in which will reduce the risk of chest infections and other serious breathing problems. 
  • Sheepskin slippers and thermal socks are great for keeping feet warm and comfortable. 
  • Wool duvets are usually best for staying warm during the night.
  • Consider investing in heated bedding, including electric blankets.
  • A hot water bottle can really help too. But never use a hot water bottle at the same time as an electric blanket as this can be dangerous. 

Find out how to choose the best type of duvet at Which? Home & garden.

Stay active and eat well

Try to have at least one hot meal a day (such as porridge, stew or soup) and plenty of warm drinks. Taking a vitamin D supplement is also important in the winter months. 

It’s a good idea to try not to sit still for more than an hour at a time, as moving about can warm you up. Getting some light exercise each day – perhaps a short walk in the park if you’re mobile enough – can also help keep you warm. There are also gentle activities you can do at home if you’re not able to get out and about. 

Avoid alcohol – it may make you feel warmer but it actually lowers your body temperature, drawing heat away from your vital organs. 

Are you eligible for the Winter Fuel Payment?

The Winter Fuel Payment is a government grant of £100–£300, available to older people to help with heating bills. This grant can make a lot of difference, but particularly in winter, when it often costs more to heat a property.

Read our article to find out whether you’re eligible. 

How to reduce your heating bills

You need to heat your home in winter in order to stay healthy. Often, the cost of heating can be a worry for older people, but there are a few things you can do to save on your energy bill.

Make sure your property is well insulated

To help you feel warm at home, it's important that the property is well insulated. Taking steps to improve insulation can significantly decrease energy bills, and also reduce the impact on the environment.

Switch your energy supplier

You should also consider switching your energy provider. You can save hundreds of pounds over a year by doing so. Use our Which? Switch service to help us find you the cheapest energy deal.

Heat only the room you’re in

If you stay in the same room for most of the day, you don’t need to waste money heating up the rest of the house. Keep your main living room at 18-20°C and heat your bedroom just before you go to sleep.

Close the curtains

Keep curtains closed when the sun goes down to keep the heat in. But keep them open to let in the warmth from the sun during the day. 

DIY measures

Cover a thin sheet of card with tinfoil and place it behind your radiators. This will reflect the heat back into your rooms so they warm up faster. 

Patch up draughty spots around windows and doors with insulating tape. Or make your own draught excluder from old socks to place under doors. 

Should you buy an electric heater?

Central heating can provide the best coverage throughout the home, but you could also consider buying a portable fan heater to maintain the temperature in certain rooms. 

Bear in mind that heaters should never be covered up, and they may not be appropriate for people living with dementia because they can present a fire hazard if the unit is left on for an extended period of time.

Further reading

Telecare

Telecare systems make use of the latest technology to help people in later life continue to live independently at home.

Home security

How to improve general home security, including getting the best from key safes, doorbells, locks and lighting.

How to get a wheelchair

We explain the options for getting a wheelchair, from the NHS service and rental options to buying one privately.

Last updated: 02 Dec 2019