Who doesn’t love summer? The season’s sunshine and warmth can boost your spirits and even soothe aching joints. When the temperature soars, though, you need to exercise caution. Hot weather, especially during a heat wave when the temperature stays 10 degrees or more above average for days, can be dangerous to your health. In fact, from 1997 to 2003, more Americans died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined.
Older adults face increased risk for suffering from serious illness during a heat wave. If you’re not careful, a heat wave can sweep you off your feet and into the emergency department as a result of dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. As you age, your body weight is made up of less fluid, which makes you more susceptible to dehydration or other heat-related conditions. Certain medications, excess weight and chronic illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure make you vulnerable to the heat, too, as can alcohol consumption.
Dehydration occurs when your body loses more water than you consume. As you lose water through perspiration, you also lose salt and minerals. This depletion leads to dizziness, fatigue and painful muscle cramps. Since you may also have a dulled sense of thirst, you may not instinctively reach for a water bottle as often as you should to keep cool and hydrated.
Heat-related illness can become serious if it is not recognized and treated early. Heat exhaustion feels like a summertime flu, marked by clammy skin, nausea, headache, dizziness, weakness and pale skin. Untreated, heat exhaustion can quickly escalate to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition. The body’s heat-regulating system becomes overwhelmed by excessive heat, resulting in changes in consciousness; a rapid, weak pulse; rapid, shallow breathing; and hot, pale skin absent of sweat.
If you experience any of these conditions, call for help and get to the hospital for immediate care.
To prevent heat-related illness, follow these tips to stay cool in hot weather:
- Drink two to four 8-ounce glasses of cool, noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic beverages every hour.
- Stay inside an air-conditioned home. If you don’t have air conditioning, visit a friend or go to the mall, a library or the movies during the day’s hottest hours.
- Keep window shades down to block direct sunlight.
- Take a cool shower or bath.
- Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
- Ask a family member, friend or neighbor to check on you at least twice a day. Check in on your friends, too.
- Slow down and avoid vigorous exercise.
Be mindful of the weather because it doesn’t take extreme temperatures to induce heat illness when the humidity is high. Use common sense, keep cool and enjoy the summer.