With temperatures going to climb into the three digits within the next few days, I thought last week’s message about heat bears repeating. Hyperthermia occurs when your body cannot dissipate as much heat as it absorbs or produces. Extreme heat and adverse drug reactions are the two most common reasons people suffer from hyperthermia. Not having air conditioning, not drinking enough fluids, lack of mobility—those are some of the reasons most fatalities related to the heat occur in individuals 50 and over. The problem is particularly bad for men. About two-thirds of deaths related to hyperthermia occur in males. The risk of hyperthermia for both men and women increase due to these conditions:
• Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands
• Alcohol use
• Being substantially overweight or underweight
• Heart, lung and kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever
• High blood pressure or other health conditions that require changes in diet. For example, people on salt-restricted diets may be at increased risk. However, salt pills should not be used without first consulting a physician.
Here is a list of things you can do to lower your risk of heat-related illness as compiled by the National Institutes of Health:
- Drink plenty of liquids—water, fruit, or vegetable juices. Aim for eight glasses every day. Heat tends to make you lose fluids, so it is very important to remember to keep drinking liquids when it’s hot. Try to stay away from drinks containing alcohol or caffeine. If your doctor has told you to limit your liquids, ask what you should do when it is very hot.
- If you live in a home or apartment without fans or air conditioning, try to keep your house as cool as possible.
- Limit your use of the oven. Cover windows with shades, blinds, or curtains during the hottest part of the day. Open your windows at night.
- If your house is hot, try to spend at least 2 hours during mid-day some place that has air conditioning—for example, go to the shopping mall, movies, library, senior center, or a friend’s house.
- If you need help getting to a cool place, ask a friend or relative. Some Area Agencies on Aging, religious groups, or senior centers provide this service. If necessary, take a taxi or call for senior transportation. Don’t stand outside in the heat waiting for a bus.
- If you have an air conditioner but can’t afford the electric bills, there may be some local resources that can help. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is one possible resource.
- Dress for the weather. Some people find natural fabrics such as cotton to be cooler than synthetic fibers. Light-colored clothes feel cooler. Don’t try to exercise or do a lot of activities when it’s hot.
- Avoid crowded places when it’s hot outside. Plan trips during non-rush hour times.
Caregivers should be especially aware of the possible harm from heat and look for these signs:
- Headache, nausea and fatigue are signs of at least some heat stress.
- Heat fatigue: cool, moist skin, a weakened pulse, feeling faint.
- Heat syncope: sudden dizziness, pale, sweaty looking skin that is moist and cool to the touch, weakened pulse and rapid heart rate but normal body temperature (that is, 98.6 degrees, taken with a thermometer).
- Heat cramps: muscle spasms in the abdomen, arms or legs after exercise. (Note that these may be caused by lack of salt but do not give salt or salt tablets without consulting a physician.)
- Heat exhaustion: this is warning that the body is getting too hot. Watch for thirst, giddiness, weakness, lack of coordination, nausea, and profuse sweating. Cold, clammy skin. Body temperature may be normal (98.6 degrees). Pulse is normal or raised slightly. Pupils may contract. Urination decreases and the person may vomit.
- Heat stroke: this is life-threatening. Immediate medical attention is required. Death can occur quickly when heat stroke occurs. Body temperature rises above 100 degrees F (some sources say 104 degrees F), and the person may become confused, combative, behave bizarrely, feel faint, stagger. Pulse is rapid. Skin is dry, flushed and may feel hot. Lack of sweating. Breathing may be fast and shallow. Pupils may widen or dilate. Delirium, seizures or convulsions, and coma are possible.
Seek medical assistance for any of these signs and – if you suspect heat stroke – call 911 or medical personnel immediately.