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When the Heat Is On: What Seniors Need to Know About Heat Illness

Whether you love or hate heat and humidity, it’s important to take precautions in the summer to protect yourself from heat-related illnesses. Read on to find out what you can do to minimize the effects of heat and the potential risks.

Older adults are at extra risk for heat-related problems. In extreme cases, heat can be fatal. And it’s not just heat waves that pose a danger. Temperature shifts place older people with chronic illnesses in danger even when it’s not scorching. That’s because aging already makes it difficult to adjust to sudden weather changes. Chronic conditions make it even harder for the body to regulate its temperature. Medications for these illnesses may block natural responses, such as sweating.

Plan Ahead

These strategies can help prevent heat-related illnesses:

  • Wear clothes that are light in weight and color.
  • Drink lots of water or juice through the day regardless of your activity level. Drink continuously, not just when you feel thirsty. If your fluid intake is limited due to a medical condition or medication, ask your doctor how much fluid is safe for you to drink during hot weather.
  • Avoid alcohol or sugar-laden drinks and very cold beverages. Limit caffeine intake.
  • Keep cool by staying indoors in an air-conditioned place, taking a cool shower or bath, or sitting in front of a fan.
  • Limit outdoor work and exercise to early morning and evening hours.
  • Never leave a person or a pet in a closed vehicle.

Heat Cramps

Muscle spasms or pain in the abdomen, arms, or legs after strenuous exercise are called heat cramps. If this happens to you, stop exercising and sit in a cool place. Drink clear juice or a sports beverage, and seek medical attention if the cramps last longer than an hour.

Heat Exhaustion

Hot weather, inadequate fluid intake, or strenuous physical activity in the heat may cause heat exhaustion. Warning signs include heavy sweating; pale, cool, moist skin; headache; weakness; confusion; nausea or vomiting; and dizziness. To treat this condition: drink plenty of water or a cool beverage (avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages), remove unnecessary clothing, rest in a cool environment, or take a cool shower or bath. Seek medical attention if symptoms last longer than an hour.

Heatstroke

This condition occurs when the body can’t control its temperature. Untreated, heatstroke can be life threatening. Warning signs include a body temperature above 103 degrees; hot, dry skin (no sweating); rapid pulse; fast, shallow breathing; nausea; vomiting; throbbing headache; dizziness; confusion; muscle weakness or cramps; and unconsciousness.

Call for emergency medical assistance if you or someone near you has these symptoms. A person with these symptoms should be cooled off quickly. Place the person in a cool bath or shower, or sponge with cool water.  If the humidity is low, you may also cover the person with a cool, wet sheet and fan vigorously to lower the body temperature.

 

Sources
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/faq.asp.

Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke. American Academy of Family Physicians, familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/prevention-wellness/staying-healthy/first-aid/heat-exhaustion-an-heatstroke.html.

Heat-Related Illness. American Red Cross, 6l3zyr.redcross.org/services/hss/tips/heat.html.

Heat Stress in the Elderly. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 31, 2009. www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/elderlyheat.asp.

Hyperthermia: Too Hot for Your Health. National Institute on Aging, U.S. National Institutes of Health, www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2012/06/hyperthermia-too-hot-your-health.

“Summer temperature variability and long-term survival among elderly people with chronic disease.” A. Zanobettia et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 17, pp. 6608–13, www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/04/03/1113070109.abstract.

Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/heattips.asp.