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Heat-Related Illnesses: Know Your Risk This Summer


Cookouts, pool days, picnics, hikes—sound familiar? Sunnier summer days mean more time outside to recharge or connect with our friends and family. However, before you head out the door without your water bottle, it’s important to prepare against the health effects of rising temperatures.

As we age, we grow more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Known as hyperthermia, these health issues range from mild cramps to dehydration and even heat stroke. According to the National Institute of Health, individuals over 50 comprise the majority of yearly deaths from hyperthermia. Understanding how our bodies change as we get older can help ourselves and our loved ones better prepare for emergencies.

Am I at Risk?

Regardless of age, the body has to work overtime to maintain a healthy temperature in the summer heat. Health concerns more prevalent in those over 50 make that work all the more difficult as we get older, such as:

  • Age-related changes to the skin, such as poor blood circulation and reduced-capacity sweat glands
  • Heart, lung and kidney diseases, as well as any other illnesses that cause general weakness or fever
  • Conditions treated by medications such as beta blockers
  • Being overweight or underweight

Other lifestyle factors that increase our risk for hyperthermia include:

  • Dehydration. As we age, we can lose our sense of thirst, so it’s important to load up on water or beverages with few added sugars.
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Hot living quarters
  • Lack of transportation
  • Overdressing
  • Visiting overcrowded places

What to Look For

Remember, this list isn’t limited to those who are older – make sure everyone you spend time in the sun with stays safe!

  • Heat edema: swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot. You can elevate your feet to alleviate swelling, but if that doesn’t work quickly, call a doctor.
  • Heat syncope: sudden dizziness after exercising or physical exertion in the heat. Rest in a cool place, take deep breaths, elevate your legs, and drink water to make the dizziness go away.
  • Heat cramps: the painful tightening of muscles that can result from hard work or exercise. Though your body temperature and pulse usually stay normal during heat cramps, your skin may feel moist and cool.
  • Heat exhaustion: excessive sweating, dizziness, nausea, muscle cramps and weakness, resulting from prolonged heat exposure. Heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke if not monitored carefully.
  • Heat stroke: a severe form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is unable to control its temperature. Someone with a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit is likely suffering from heat stroke. Symptoms include fainting; a change in behavior (confusion, combativeness, staggering, possible delirium or coma); dry, flushed skin and a strong, rapid pulse; and a lack of sweating. Call 911 immediately.

How Can I Help?

If you think you or someone you know is suffering from a heat-related illness:

  • Call 911 immediately if you suspect heat stroke
  • Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, cool place. Urge them to lie down or encourage them to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water if they are able
  • If the person can swallow safely, offer fluids such as water and fruit or vegetable juices, but not alcohol or caffeine
  • Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits and groin. Blood passes close to the surface of the skin in these places, and a cold cloth can help cool the blood

Preventative Measures

  • Dress for the weather. Natural fabrics, such as cotton or linen, are usually cooler than synthetic fibers.
  • Stay inside! Don’t try to exercise or perform strenuous activities when it’s too hot for comfort.
  • Avoid crowded places when it’s hot outside. Plan trips during non-rush-hour times.
  • Try to keep your house as cool as possible, especially if you live in a home or apartment without fans or air conditioning. Limit your use of the oven. Keep your shades, blinds or curtains closed during early afternoon, the hottest part of the day and open your windows at night.
  • Hydrate! Drink plenty of liquids, such as water or fruit or vegetable juices. 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.
  • Monitor your symptoms. Headache, confusion, dizziness or nausea could be a sign of a heat-related illness. Go to the doctor or an emergency room to find out if you need treatment.

During hot weather, think about making daily visits to older relatives and neighbors. Remind them to drink lots of water and offer to help them go to a cool, air-conditioned place. Look out for each other this and every season!