Summer weather can pose special health risks to older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. It is critically important that adults particularly susceptible to hyperthermia and other heat-related illnesses know how to safeguard against problems.
Hyperthermia is caused by a failure of the heat-regulating mechanisms of the body. Heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after prolonged exposure to the heat), heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are forms of hyperthermia. Older adults are at risk for these conditions, and this risk can increase with the combination of higher temperature, individual lifestyle and general health.
Lifestyle factors can include not drinking enough fluids, living in housing without air conditioning, lack of mobility and access to transportation, overdressing, visiting overcrowded places and not understanding how to respond to hot weather conditions. Older people, particularly those with chronic medical conditions, should stay indoors in cooler spaces on hot and humid days, especially when an air pollution alert is in effect.
People without air conditioners should go to places that do have air conditioning, such as senior centers, shopping malls, movie theaters and libraries.
Factors that increase the risk of hyperthermia may include:
- High blood pressure or other health conditions
- Heart, lung and kidney diseases
- Use of multiple medications
- Reduced sweating, caused by medications
- Age-related changes to the skin
- Being substantially overweight or underweight
- Alcohol use
Heat stroke is a life-threatening form of hyperthermia. It occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. Signs and symptoms of heat stroke include an increase in body temperature, changes in mental status, rapid pulse, lack of sweating, dry flushed skin, feeling faint, staggering or coma.
If you suspect that someone is suffering from a heat-related illness:
- Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or other cool place. Urge them to lie down.
- Call 911
- Encourage the individual to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water
- Apply a cold, wet cloth
- If the person can swallow safely, offer water or fruit juice
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