Summer is here! While the summer brings with it warm and pleasant weather, it can also introduce high temperatures and humidity that stress the body's ability to cool itself, leading to dangerous and in some cases deadly illnesses.
Each year, there are approximately 675 heat-related deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As people grow older, their bodies are less responsive to long-term heat exposure. As a result, they can experience the painful and sometimes fatal consequences of heat stress. This is why health care professionals from Barnabas Health Home Care and Hospice say it is essential that older adults understand heat-related illnesses and their early warning signs.
There are three major forms of heat illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat cramps are muscle spasms that usually affect the arms, legs or stomach. They occur when fluid and salt lost by heavy sweating are not replenished. Although heat cramps can be very painful, they usually do not result in permanent damage. Drinking plenty of fluids can prevent this uncomfortable condition.
Heat exhaustion is more serious than heat cramps. It occurs when sweating causes the body to lose water and salt (electrolytes), resulting in a reduction of blood volume. The symptoms of heat exhaustion often include headache, heavy sweating, intense thirst, dizziness, fatigue, loss of coordination and appetite, nausea, cool moist skin, and weak and rapid pulse. According to Barnabas Health Home Care and Hospice, victims of heat exhaustion should make an appointment to be examined by a health care professional and should avoid strenuous activity for at least one day.
The most dangerous heat illness is heat stroke. Sweating is the body's most effective means of heat removal. As heat stroke begins, sweating stops and body temperature can rise to critical levels. Heat stroke is more likely to occur in older adults and can cause death if it is not immediately treated by a health care professional. The early symptoms of heat stroke may include high body temperature, distinct absence sweating, hot, red or flushed dry skin, rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, and/or high blood pressure. Advanced symptoms may include seizures, convulsions or loss of consciousness.
If you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from any heat-related illness, it is essential to seek immediate medical attention.
Heat illnesses can be serious, and in some cases deadly, but there are ways to protect yourself. To avoid heat-related illnesses, Barnabas Health Home Care and Hospice offers these tips to older adults:
- Drink plenty of liquids. Don't wait until you are thirsty to drink; by then, there is a good chance you are already on your way to being dehydrated. Electrolyte drinks are good for replacing both water and minerals lost through sweating. Also, avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages when spending a day in the sun.
- Wear sunscreen. A sunburn will inhibit your skin's ability to sweat.
- Watch the news. Your local news station will alert you on days when hot weather has the potential to pose a danger to older adults.
- Take cool baths or showers. Cool water lowers body heat 25 times faster than cool air.
- Wear light clothing. Loose-fitting clothing allows sweat to evaporate.
- Use salt tablets only with your physician's approval.
- Avoid hot foods and heavy meals.
- Stay in air conditioned areas. If your home does not have air conditioning, spend time in public facilities like your local library or mall.
- Be alert. Do not ignore the danger signs of heat-related illnesses. If you feel uncomfortable, take a break. If symptoms persist, contact a health care professional.
For more information about heat illnesses, visit the Barnabas Health online Health Library at healthlibrary.barnabashealth.org.
For more information about Barnabas Health Home Care and Hospice, visit barnabashealth.org