Family Medicine

Summer heat can not only be extremely uncomfortable, but even deadly

Every year tragic deaths show the dangers that extreme heat and humidity can pose, particularly to young children and the elderly. Of the two groups, the elderly are more at risk to heat-related deaths and illnesses because they often have medical conditions or live in situations that make them more likely to succumb to the heat.

As individuals age, their bodies are slower to adjust to changes in temperature and become more prone to dehydration. One of the common changes with aging is a diminished thirst reflex that can keep older individuals from drinking adequate amounts of liquid, even during hot weather. Many older individuals also take medications, such as diuretics and laxatives, that increase their bodies’ fluid loss.

Elderly individuals may have problems with mobility, making it difficult to get something to drink on their own. Others may have safety concerns that keep them behind closed doors and windows, or financial concerns that keep them from turning on fans or air conditioners.

On days when temperatures and humidity are high, please remember to check on elderly friends, relatives or neighbors. Take the time to stop by or make a quick phone call to make sure they are coping well with the heat and be alert for signs—such as dizziness, confusion and nausea—that indicate something could be wrong. Make sure they have noncaffeine fluids available to drink and that those drinks are within easy reach. If safety or financial concerns has your friend or neighbor behind closed doors without air conditioning or fans, offer to stay with that person while the windows are open, or offer to take him or her to your home or to an air conditioned place.

If you suspect that an elderly individual is experiencing physical stress from the heat, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention. An individual who is perspiring heavily and feeling dizzy, weak or nauseated may be experiencing heat exhaustion. Encourage frequent drinks of cool water and apply cool, wet cloths directly to the skin, but seek medical help if symptoms don’t improve quickly or suddenly worsen.

Be particularly aware of the signs of heat stroke. These symptoms are similar to those of heat exhaustion—dizziness, weakness, exhaustion— without the perspiration. An individual experiencing heat stroke may also faint, stagger or act confused. Heat stroke is a lifethreatening condition. If you suspect heat stroke, immediately call 911 or emergency medical services.

Originally Published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 7/08


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