With recent temperatures reaching the high 90’s and heat indexes topping 100, it’s worth a reminder that summer’s heat can be particularly risky for older adults–especially those with chronic health conditions. Knowing how to safeguard against hyperthermia and other heat-related conditions can be critically important for the vulnerable elderly. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, has some tips to help avoid the hazards of hot weather.
According to the NIA, “Hyperthermia is caused by a failure of the heat-regulating mechanisms of the body. Heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after prolonged exposure to the heat), heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are forms of hyperthermia. Older adults are at risk for these conditions, and this risk can increase with the combination of higher temperature, individual lifestyle and general health.”
The lifestyle factors include things like not drinking enough fluids, living in residences that lack air conditioning, having poor access to transportation, overdressing or visiting overcrowded places. Older people, particularly those with chronic medical conditions, should stay indoors in cooler spaces on hot, muggy days. This is especially important during air pollution alerts.
Seniors lacking air conditioning should attempt to find cooler public spaces, if possible, like shopping malls, movie theaters and libraries. Cooling centers, which may be set up by local public health agencies, religious groups and social service organizations in many communities, are another option.
The most serious form of hyperthermia is heat stroke, a life-threatening condition in which the body’s temperature control mechanisms are overwhelmed. As a result, body temperature rises, usually higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and is accompanied by confusion, agitation, a rapid pulse, dry flushed skin faintness and ultimately coma. Signs and symptoms of heat stroke require immediate emergency medical attention.
Many factors can increase a senior’s chances of experiencing hyperthermia. Some examples are dehydration; heart, lung or kidney disease; certain medications, age-related loss of skin circulation and inefficient sweat glands; and alcohol abuse
Here are some tips from the NIA if you suspect someone of suffering from hyperthermia. You can also view and download a fact sheet from their website.
- Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or other cool place. Urge them to lie down.
- If you suspect heat stroke, call 911.
- Encourage the individual to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water if it is safe to do so.
- Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits, and/or groin. These are places where blood passes close to the surface of the skin, and the cold cloths can help cool the blood.
- If the person can swallow safely, offer fluids such as water, fruit and vegetable juices.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.