As the country continues to experience its recent history of long, hot summers, it is becoming vitally important that we understand symptoms of heat related illnesses, especially for our seniors. Our bodies work hard every day to maintain a normal temperature. Excessive heat forces our body to work harder than normal, which often is the root cause of heat-related illness. Essentially the heat forces our bodies to work beyond their limits. For senior citizens, this can be a dangerous – and even deadly – problem. With awareness and preventative measures, caregivers can help their senior loved ones enjoy a healthy, active summer.
Seniors don’t ‘feel the heat’ the way younger people do, and so might not be aware of the risks of high temperatures. Physiologically, as we age our bodies lose some natural ability to regulate temperature making seniors more susceptible to temperature changes in the environment. One such change is that the subcutaneous layer of fat beneath the skin, which acts as a natural insulation to hear and cold, dwindles. Also because seniors perspire less, it’s harder for them to keep cool which also increases their risk of becoming overheated.
The two most serious conditions for seniors that result from heat and exposure to high temperatures are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is a non-life-threatening condition caused by loss of salt and fluid from the body that results from prolonged exposure to extreme heat. Characteristic symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, blurred vision, nausea, upset stomach, ashen appearance, low blood pressure, vomiting, sluggishness, fatigue, thirst, rapid weak heartbeat, profuse sweating and moderate increase in body temperature.
Once you recognize that the senior in your life is in distress and exhibiting the symptoms of heat exhaustion, it’s imperative to take action to cool him or her down. Move him or her to a cool, dry place to lie down and rest. Loosen or remove clothing. Apply cool water to the skin and fan the wet skin. Applying ice that is wrapped in a towel to the head, neck armpits and groin areas can help to bring down the body temperature, too. Also have him or her drink cool water. The water should be cool, but not iced. Electrolyte drinks are also good for someone experiencing this condition. Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
Heat stroke, on the other hand, is a life threatening condition. It requires immediate medical attention. Heat stroke occurs when the body cannot cool itself, usually because sweating stops and the body’s core temperature becomes too high. Conditions like obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as taking some medications commonly prescribed to seniors, being dehydrated or consuming alcohol in elevated temperatures, can all contribute to the increased risk of heat stroke.
Symptoms of heat stroke include headache, dizziness, elevated or lowered blood pressure, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, fatigue, seizures, hot dry skin, fainting, loss of consciousness, increased body temperature, rapid heartbeat and hallucinations.
Another major issue seniors can experience due to prolonged heat exposure is dehydration. People age 65 and older can lose their sense of thirst, and tend to not drink enough. Older people also have less ability to perspire, which is a mechanism to release heat from the body. In addition, many older people have chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and may take medications that can make them more susceptible to dehydration and can cause increased sensitivity to sunlight.
Dehydration is caused by loss of salts and water in our bodies due to severe sweating, extreme heat, vomiting, diarrhea and certain medications. Severe dehydration can become life threatening to the elderly because there is no longer enough fluid in the body to carry blood to the organs. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, dry skin, fatigue, confusion, light headed, dry mouth, increased heart and breathing rate and decreased urination. Seniors who are dehydrated should be moved to a cool place to lie down and rest. They should drink water to replenish fluids.
As a caregiver you can help to prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion in your senior loved one by following these simple tips:
- Make sure your senior drinks plenty of fluids throughout the day, even if he or she doesn’t feel thirsty. Seniors should avoid caffeine and alcoholic beverages as much as possible as they accelerate dehydration. Have him or her drink plenty of water. The body also loses sodium and potassium through sweating, so popular sports drinks can be good for rehydration also. Good nutrition and adequate fluids are especially important for seniors in the hot summer months. Remember, dehydration increases the risk of skin injury.
- Avoid direct sun exposure, especially during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Keeping your senior out of direct sunlight as much as possible is key. Seek out shaded spots outdoors. To protect your senior’s skin from harmful UV rays, the American Cancer Society uses a catch phrase that can help your senior remember some useful steps to protect him or herself when going out in the sun – “Slip! Slop! Slap! And Wrap!” Meaning, “Slip on a shirt. Slop on Sunscreen. Slap on a hat. And Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them.”
- Limit strenuous activity and exercise. Our body works hard enough during the hot days that adding strenuous physical activity can be detrimental. If your senior exercises regularly, try it during the early morning or late evenings. Planning around the hottest time of the day can help to limit exposure to the heat.
- Take frequent breaks to cool down. When spending time out in the hot sun, it’s beneficial to take numerous breaks to recover. Having a cool area in his or her home in which to recover can also be beneficial. Make sure the home’s cooling device – whether it’s an electric fan, a portable air conditioner or central AC – is working properly to ensure faster recovery.
As always, guidelines in this article are not intended as medical advice. Do seek medical attention for your senior if he or she experiences heat-related issues. That way you can assure that your senior has a safe and healthy summer!
- ‘Senior Citizen Summer Safety Tips,’ U.S. Center for Disease Control online, (http://www.centerfordiseasecontrol.com)
‘Extreme Heat Causes Exhaustion and Heatstroke,’ by Christine Bude Nyholm, Yahoo! Contributor Network; (www.Yahoo!.com)
- ‘Summer Health Risks for Senior Citizens,’ by Drew Taylor, Yahoo! Contributor Network; (www.Yahoo!.com)
- ‘Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection,’ published by the American Cancer Society online, (http://www.americancancersociety.com)