Is It Too Hot For Your Health?

Almost every summer, there’s a deadly heat wave in some parts of the country. Excessive heat isn’t safe for anyone, especially for older people or those with health problems. But exactly what dangers are you facing and how can you protect yourself? Here’s some advice from the National Institute on Aging:

Your body is always working to keep a balance between how much heat it makes and how much it loses. Too much heat causes sweating. And being hot for too long can cause several illnesses, all grouped under the name hyperthermia:

HEAT SYNCOPE is a sudden dizziness that may happen when you are active during hot weather. If you take a kind of heart medication called a beta blocker or are unused to hot weather, you are even more likely to feel faint. Drinking water, putting your legs up, and resting in a cool place should make the dizzy feeling go away.

HEAT CRAMPS are the painful tightening of muscles in your stomach, arms, or legs. Cramps can result from hard work or exercise. These cramps are a sign that you are too hot. Find a way to cool your body down. Rest in the shade or in a cool building. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, but not those with alcohol or caffeine (coffee, tea, and some sodas). Caffeine can cause you to be dehydrated.

HEAT EDEMA is a swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot. Putting your legs up should help. If that doesn’t work fairly quickly, check with your doctor.

HEAT EXHAUSTION is a warning that your body can no longer keep itself cool. You might feel thirsty, dizzy, weak, uncoordinated, and nauseated. You may sweat a lot. Even though your body temperature stays normal, your skin feels cold and clammy. Some people with heat exhaustion have a rapid pulse. Rest in a cool place and get plenty of fluids. If you don’t feel better soon, get medical care. Be careful—heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.

HEAT STROKE can be life threatening. You need to get medical help right away. Older people living in homes or apartments without air conditioning or fans are at most risk. So are people who become dehydrated or those with chronic diseases or alcoholism.

Signs Of Heat Stroke—A Medical Emergency

Fainting, possibly the first sign

Body temperature over 104°F

A change in behavior—confusion, being grouchy, acting strangely, or staggering

Dry flushed skin and a strong rapid pulse or a slow weak pulse

Not sweating even if it is hot, acting agitated, or being in a coma

Who Is At Risk?

Most people who die from some form of hyperthermia each year are over 50 years old. Health problems that put you at greater risk include: Heart or blood vessel problems, poorly working sweat glands, or changes in your skin caused by normal aging. Additional causes can be heart, lung, or kidney disease, as well as any illness that makes you feel weak all over or results in a fever. Conditions treated by drugs such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and some heart and high blood pressure medicines can also be a factor. These may make it harder for your body to cool itself by sweating. If you take several prescription drugs, ask your doctor what to do if the drugs you take make you more likely to become overheated. Other risk factors include being very overweight or underweight and drinking alcohol.

How You Can Protect Yourself

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. (The temperature inside or outside doesn’t have to reach 100 to be risky.) 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. Try to spend at least two 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. (Editor’s note: Your local utility may also have a program.)

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. Plan trips during non-rush hour times.

If the temperature or humidity is going up or an air pollution alert is in effect, you are at an increased risk for a heat-related illness. Play it safe by checking the weather report before going outside.

No matter where you are, be aware of possible 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.

If you know an older person who is vulnerable, think about making a daily visit to see how they’re doing and if they are taking good care of themselves. You can also offer to take them someplace cool.

For more information on aging, visit the National Institute on Aging site.

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