Preventing Heat Illnesses This Summer

LINCOLN – Summer has made itself know in Nebraska, bringing not only the heat but also the usual high humidity. Going outside for just minutes may be dangerous for anyone when the temperature soars, but older people especially need to be cautious. As people age, sweating, thirst, and releasing heat through dilated blood vessels at the surface of the skin are certain physiological responses that diminish when encountering hot temperatures. While coping with this extreme heat is a seasonal ritual, the elderly are much more susceptible to heat exhaustion and heatstroke than the average adult.

As people age, the body becomes less efficient at regulating temperature because older adults (65+) don’t sweat as much as younger adults, which is one of the body’s most important heat-regulation mechanisms. Seniors also store fat differently than younger adults, which further complicates heat-regulation in the body. This is serious because as the temperature rises, so does a person’s internal body temperature, especially when exposed directly to the sun or extremely hot environments.

Seniors suffer from heatstroke more often than those who are younger throughout the summer season. An estimated 12,000 Americans die of heat-related causes annually, according to research by scientists at Duke University. More than 80% of those dying from heat-related illnesses are over 60 years of age, with 90% of these deaths occurring during the months of May–September, according to The Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Adults should take heat warnings seriously, especially those older adults who are living in southern states and at higher altitudes.  Don’t underestimate the real risks of extreme heat and pay attention to the heat index, which factors in relative humidity. Heed the air quality and ozone warnings in weather reports; heat and sunlight convert pollutants into ozone, an invisible gas associated with automobile exhaust and factory emissions. Ozone gas is associated with the progression of emphysema-like changes on lung scans and a decline in lung function.

Lifestyle and health factors increase the risk of developing heat-related illnesses and hospitalizations. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which surveys health data as an indicator of climate change, notes the higher hospitalization rates in the Southeast and Midwest areas; the rates suggest a connection between hotter and more humid summers, and increased rates of heat-related illness when compared to other regions.  Hospitalizations and ER visits for kidney failure, urinary tract infections, and other health problems have also increased for older adults during heat waves. Salt-restricted diets and prescription medications that are normally prescribed to this group further boost the odds of hospitalization for heat-related problems by about 33%.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a precursor to heatstroke caused by too much heat and dehydration. Some warning signs that indicate heatstroke include: heavy sweating or no sweating at all, cold or clammy skin, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, weak pulse, and fainting. If these symptoms appear, move to a cooler, shaded location immediately and drink plenty of fluids like water or sports drinks with electrolytes (such as Gatorade). If relief has not occurred in a few minutes, or if you have heart disease, call 911 immediately.

Symptoms of Heatstroke

Heatstroke is serious and can be deadly. It does not always happen suddenly; it can occur gradually after several days of heat exposure. Generally in cases of heatstroke, a person’s body temperature is above 104 degrees. In addition to a very high body temperature, other signs of heatstroke include hot, red skin, fast pulse, headache, nausea or vomiting, confusion or lethargy, and fainting. If these symptoms appear, call 911 immediately. Then, move to a cool, shaded location. Take off heavy clothing, and, if possible, apply cool water. Clothes can be soaked in cold water and applied to the neck area, wrists, ankles, and armpits to help lower the body’s temperature. Drink some cool water or a sports drink while waiting for emergency personnel to arrive.

Summer Heat Safety Tips

These are some things seniors can do to stay cool and safe during the hot summer months:

  • Avoid direct sun exposure.
  • Stay in an air-conditioned location, and if a home does not have air conditioning, go somewhere that does. Visit a friend or relative, stop by the local library or mall, or head to the movie theatre for the afternoon.
  • Schedule your appointments in the early morning or late evening hours when the sun is not at its worst.
  • Dress appropriately, wearing loose fitting, light colored clothing. A large, broad-brimmed hat will help to avoid any sunburn on the face and neck, and always wear sunscreen when outside.

Seniors who either can’t afford to buy or run the air conditioner in their home, should check with their local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) for assistance. Additionally, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides financial assistance for managing costs of heating and cooling your home. For details, visit https://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Energy-Assistance.aspx.

During the summer months, staying hydrated is more important than ever, especially during heat waves. Lack of water, or dehydration, diminishes a body’s ability to regulate its temperature, so the risk of developing a heat illness rises dramatically. Seniors should avoid alcohol during a heat wave and drink water and juices regularly.  A good practice to follow is to drink fluids with every meal, as well as sipping fluids throughout the day, rather than drinking them quickly.

If you know elderly relatives or neighbors, check in with them during the summer heat. Make sure they are using their air conditioners if available, and watch for warning signs of heat exhaustion. It is always better to be safe than sorry; heatstroke and heat exhaustion are serious conditions. If anyone shows signs of heat exhaustion, don’t hesitate to call 911 and get help.

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