07 Aug Hot Weather Safety Tips for Seniors
In July 1995, the city of Chicago experienced one of the deadliest heat waves in our nation’s history. During a period spanning 5 days, 739 people died. Most of the victims were the elderly and infirmed living in the poorest and most dangerous sections of the city. Those affected did not have air conditioning and were afraid to sleep outside. This heat wave was particularly dangerous and deadly because it combined temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with extremely high humidity.
This tragedy is a stark reminder that people over 65 need to be especially cautious in the heat. According to the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, an older person’s ability to adequately respond to hot weather can become a serious problem. Therefore, seniors are at significant increased risk of heat-related illnesses, called hyperthermia, during the summer months. Hyperthermia can include heat stroke, heat edema (swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot), heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps, and heat exhaustion.
Risk Factors for Seniors
The NIH cautions seniors to be aware of the following factors which may put them at risk for a heat-related injury:
- Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands;
- Heart, lung, and kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever;
- High blood pressure or other conditions that require changes in diet, such as salt-restricted diets;
- Reduced sweating, caused by medications such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and certain heart and blood pressure drugs;
- Taking several drugs for various conditions (It is important, however, to continue to take prescribed medication and discuss possible problems with a physician.);
- Being substantially overweight or underweight;
- Drinking alcoholic beverages;
- Being dehydrated;
- No air conditioning in the home; and
- Wearing too many clothes.
How to Reduce Your Risk
The best approach an older adult can take to reduce the risk of a heat-related injury on a hot day is to stay indoors in air conditioning. To help reduce heat in a home, close all blinds in the morning and run fans, especially in the room where you spend the most time. If you don’t have air conditioning, go to a place that is cool during the day. This can be a shopping mall, house of worship, senior center, library, or a movie theater. Many organizations open their facilities on extremely hot days to provide cooling centers for those in need. If you don’t drive, take a taxi or call a friend for a ride. Seniors should not walk outside in extreme temperatures. Open windows at night (if you have no air conditioning). In addition, stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. Ask a friend, neighbor, or family member to check on you, either by a phone call or visit, during extremely hot days.
Be aware of heat stroke. This is a severe form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. Someone with a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit is likely suffering from heat stroke. Symptoms include fainting; a change in behavior (confusion, combativeness, staggering, possible delirium or coma); dry, flushed skin and a strong, rapid pulse; and lack of sweating. Seek immediate medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult.
If you suspect that someone is suffering from a heat-related illness:
- Call 911 if you suspect heat stroke.
- Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or other cool place. Urge them to lie down.
- If the person can swallow safely, offer fluids such as water and fruit or vegetable juices, but not alcohol or caffeine.
- Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits, and groin. These are places where blood passes close to the surface of the skin, and a cold cloth can help cool the blood.
- Encourage the person to shower, bathe, or sponge off with cool water if it is safe to do so.
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