Every summer, some parts of the US experience a heat wave. The temperatures rise higher than average and sometimes this is combined with a stifling humidity that can last for a week or more. While we are all susceptible to overheating, our vulnerability to the effects of too much heat increases as we age.
Staying out in the heat or sun for too long is the most common cause of heat problems, but staying inside a hot or stuffy apartment or home can also become hazardous to our health.
There are several reactions that can occur when we are “too hot.” Heat stroke is the most serious type of problem and is a medical emergency:
Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke
- Fainting/falling down
- Body temperature rises to 102 or higher
- A change in behavior – acting “drunk” or confused, angry, or strange
- Staggering and unsteady
- Dry (not clammy) skin and a strong rapid pulse OR a slow weak pulse
- Not sweating even when really hot
- Acting agitated or being in a coma state
A heat stroke is life threatening and you should get medical attention right away if you or someone you know is experiencing the above symptoms.
Other Hot Weather Symptoms
These are other types of reactions that can occur:
- Dizziness: This is usually felt if you are out in the sun too long or working hard in the heat. People feel faint and dizzy when standing. This is more common in people who are taking beta blocker medications for their heart. Drinking water or putting up your legs and resting in a cool spot can make the dizziness go away.
- Cramps: Heat cramps occur in your legs, arms or stomach and usually happen when your body gets overheated from too much activity in a hot environment. When this happens, our skin feels clammy and we may feel tired. These types of cramps often go away if resting in a cool spot.
- Swelling: If your ankles, feet, and fingers start swelling up, it is possibly caused by the heat. Put your legs up and rest – but call a doctor if the swelling is severe and/or doesn’t decrease within 30 minutes of resting in a cool place.
- Heat Exhaustion: This is sometimes a scary situation. You may feel weak, very thirsty, sick in the stomach, and uncoordinated. Skin will be clammy and your heart may be racing. Rest in a cool spot and drink lots of fluids. If this doesn’t resolved itself fairly quickly – you may want to contact a physician as this exhaustion is just one step away from a more serious heat related problem: heat stroke.
Why Seniors are at Risk for Heat Stroke
The following list are risk factors for having compllications in hot weather. Seniors have more of these risk factors.
- Being over 50 years old
- Heart or cardiovascular problems
- Changes to sweat glands and the skin due to normal aging
- Lung or kidney disease
- Taking certain drugs like diuretics, sedatives or tranquilizers, beta blockers and other heart medications. Ask a doctor or pharmacist if any of your medications can cause you to get overheated more easily.
- Alcohol consumption
- Being very overweight or underweight
Tips for Caring for an Aging Person in Hot Weather
- Have your family member drink plenty of fluids – but not alcohol or caffeine which can make a person dehydrated.
- Keep the home as cool as possible with fans, air conditioning, shutting the drapes to block the direct sun, open windows at night to let in cool air and close them when the temperatures start to rise again in the morning.
- Do not cook or use the oven during a heat wave – order take out or bring meals. Sometimes the heat can lower a person’s appetite. It is okay to eat a little bit lighter on hot days, but keep the fluids up and look for high-fluid foods like fruit to ensure energy levels and hydration.
- Take him or her out: If your loved one doesn’t have air conditioning – consider taking him or her to the mall, a movie, the library, a restaurant, or some other air conditioned environment for a break from the heat each day.
- Avoid crowded places outside when there is a heat wave and stay out of the direct sun.
- Wear natural clothing in light colors if your loved one must be outside.
- Sponge baths of lukewarm/cool water can help if your family member is uncomfortably hot
- Respond: If your loved one is too hot for comfort but okay, the best course of action is to have him or her drink some fluids, lie down, and rest in a cool place out of the sun.
- Heat stroke can be fatal: If you notice any signs above of heat exhaustion or heat stroke or if someone is not feeling better soon after resting in a cool spot, call a doctor and get medical attention right away.
Lori Paterno, M.Ed.
Source: National Institute on Aging