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Beat the Heat: Summer Safety Tips for Older Adults

After age 65, your body can't adjust to changes in air temperature—especially heat—as quickly as it did when you were younger. That puts you at increased risk for heat-related illnesses.

Worawan Rattanasamphan, MD, from Overlake’s Senior Health Clinic discusses ways to keep cool this summer, who’s at risk for heat injuries, symptoms of heat-related illnesses and when to call 911.

Ways to keep cool

If you do not have air conditioning, cool off using these five tips:

  • Open your windows at night.
  • Create a cross breeze by opening windows on opposite sides of the room or house.
  • Cover windows when they're in direct sunlight. Keep curtains, shades or blinds drawn during the hottest part of the day.
  • Dampen your clothing with water and sit in the breeze from a fan.
  • Spend at least two hours a day—the hottest part, if possible—in an air-conditioned place, such as a library, senior center or friend's house.

Who's at risk?

People at risk of heat-related injury include those not used to higher temperatures or high humidity, older adults, individuals who take medications with dehydration side effects, and patients with chronic diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, heart failure or diabetes.

Patients should be aware of their medications’ side effects. Some medications can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, including:

  • Diuretics, also called water pills, can worsen dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
  • Allergy and cold medications with anticholinergic effects can decrease the body's ability to sweat and cool itself.
  • Stimulant medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can cause the body to produce more heat.
  • Beta-blockers—commonly used for heart conditions and blood pressure—can decrease the skin’s ability to cool down.
  • Some antibiotics—such as Tetracycline and those containing sulfa—can increase the risk of sunburn.
  • Alcohol or caffeine can make it harder for the body to control its internal temperature.

Symptoms of heat illnesses

Heat stress, heat tiredness, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke are all forms of hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is the general name for a range of heat-related illnesses. Symptoms may include:

  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Heavy sweating.
  • Skin that is dry (no sweating), hot, and red.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Extreme tiredness after exposure to heat.

If you think someone is experiencing a heat-related illness:

  • Get the person out of the sun and heat and into a cool place—if possible, one that is air-conditioned.
  • Do not give large amounts of fluid to the individual. This can actually worsen their condition. If the person is alert and requests water, offer them small sips of fluids—not alcohol or caffeine. Water, sports drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices are best.
  • Encourage the person to sponge off with cool water.
  • Urge the person to lie down and rest.
  • Avoid using aspirin and acetaminophen, such as Tylenol; these drugs do not help with cooling.

When to call 911

Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs or symptoms of heatstroke:

  • Altered mental status—confusion, slurred words, headache, seizure, hallucination or fainting/comatose.
  • Dizziness, sluggishness or extreme tiredness.
  • Hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty.
  • Core body temperature over 104°F.
  • Rapid heart rate and/or rapid breathing.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
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