June thru August tend to be the hottest months of the year in the United States. The southeast especially can get very hot and humid this time of year, increasing the risk of heat related illnesses in seniors. Just this past week, we had record high temps throughout the nation, making it dangerous for anyone and anything in it's path.
Seniors are the most at-risk population of heat illnesses and contributing factors related to heat illnesses. Much of the time seniors have underlying health conditions, take medications, or have cognitive decline that can cause them not to feel as thirsty or hot, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, causing them to forget to drink enough water and keep themselves cool.
Symptoms of heat related illnesses can vary from sweating, to fainting, headaches, nausea, and in the worst cases, high body temperature and heat stroke. Symptoms depend on the severity of heat illness, and in the case of seniors who may be cognitively impaired, the chances of them being able to let you know they are having these types of symptoms are lower than someone who may be healthier.
Fortunately, whether you are a caregiver or an individual researching heat illnesses for yourself, there are many ways to protect yourself from the extreme heat that summer often bestows upon us.
Some tips to ensure you don’t fall victim to a heat related illness are as follows:
• Staying in an air-conditioned home or facility as much as possible during the hottest part of the day. This could include libraries, movie theatre, a senior center, a friend’s house if you don’t have AC in your home. Staying indoors during the hours of 10am-2pm when the sun is usually the hottest is a good idea too.
• Stay well hydrated, but don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink water, clear juices or sports drinks. Take frequent, small sips of your preferred beverage but do try and avoid caffeinated or alcoholic drinks.
• Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing that is light in color and use protective garments such as sun hats or an umbrella when outside.
• Limit strenuous activity during the hottest parts of the day and instead spend time outside either early in the morning or when the sun begins to set for the evening.
• Take a cool shower or bath if you begin to experience symptoms of heat related illness or if you are uncomfortable in the heat, or rest if you begin to feel exhausted from the heat.
• Check in with your neighbors or elderly friends to make sure they are doing okay in the heat. If they aren’t, offer them to come and hang out with you in an air-conditioned place, or help them get transportation to somewhere that may be safe from the heat to protect them.
There are two main heat related illnesses that can progress if left untreated. Both are caused by higher than normal or humid temperatures, and certain medications, medical conditions, and demographics such as age.
Those are as follows:
1. Heat Exhaustion- Not life threatening in most cases, but if left untreated can progress to heat stroke. Heat exhaustion includes symptoms such as heat cramps, excessive sweating, fatigue, headache, nausea or dizziness. If caught quickly, most individuals who have been afflicted by this condition have a good prognosis and symptoms will improve with re-hydration, moving to a cooler area and removing excessive clothing and rest.
2. Heat Stroke- If left alone, heat exhaustion can turn into a heat stroke which is a severe form of heat illness and can cause devastating consequences such as death. When someone has heat stroke, they may lose consciousness, lose the ability to sweat, have a high body temperature of 103 degrees or higher, confusion, agitation, fast pulse or nausea. Heat strokes are ALWAYS an emergency and need to be treated as such by calling 911, moving the person to a cooler area, apply cool cloths to the forehead, neck, and armpits, and getting the individual to the hospital ASAP.
To learn more about heat related illnesses in seniors, the CDC has more information and tips that can help you and your loved ones stay safe this summer! Check out those tips, and more information by the National Institute on Aging here.