Heat stroke is a condition caused by your body overheating, usually due to prolonged exposure to the sun or physical exertion in high temperatures. Because untreated heat stroke can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles, it requires emergency treatment. The damage worsens the longer treatment is delayed, increasing a person’s risk of serious complications such as permanent vital organ damage due to swelling – or even death.
Signs and symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature of 104 F or above, an altered mental state or behavior (confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium, or seizures), alteration in sweating, nausea, and vomiting, flushed skin, rapid breathing, racing heart rate, and/or a headache.
While anyone can develop heat stroke, several factors increase your risks, such as age, sudden exposure to hot weather, physical exertion in hot weather, a lack of air conditioning, certain medications, and certain health conditions. The elderly are especially vulnerable to heat stroke because their central nervous systems have generally begun to deteriorate, which makes their body less able to cope with changes in body temperature. It’s also more difficult for them to remain hydrated, increasing their risk. Some may not even notice they’re overheating until they become ill.
Follow these six tips to prevent seniors from overheating this summer:
1. Understand their health conditions. Be sure you know if they are on any medications (especially vasoconstrictors, beta-blockers, diuretics, antidepressants, antipsychotics), since these can affect their body’s ability to stay hydrated and respond to heat. If they suffer from certain chronic illnesses, such as heart or lung disease, are obese, sedentary, or have a history of previous heat stroke, they will have an increased risk of heat stroke. If they are on a special diet, such as a low-salt one, that could also affect how their bodies regulate temperature. Find out if there are special things you must remember if you have to treat them for heat stroke. For example, would common remedies like sports drinks or lots of water harm them?
2. Identify heat stroke symptoms for speedy treatment. Know the signs of someone suffering from overheating, and call 911 or their doctor to get professional medical attention as soon as possible. In the meantime, try to cool them down by getting them into the shade or indoors and removing excess clothing. You could also put them in a cool tub or shower, spray them with a garden hose or sponge, or mist them with cool water. Another good idea is to place ice packs or cold, wet towels on their head, neck, armpits, and groin.
3. Encourage water intake and remind them to dress for the weather. A hydrated body feels cooler and regulates temperature better, so have them drink regularly. Avoid cold water, however, as it could cause cramps. Convince them to wear as little clothing as possible and ensure they are light, loose, and breathable. Give them a bath towel to use as a light lap blanket if they feel chilly.
4. Keep them cool at home. Heat rises, so have them stay on the ground floor or basement of the house and avoid the hotter, stuffy upper floors. Keep the house as cool as possible by using solar curtains to block out the sun and heat. Buy or rent an indoor air conditioning unit. If you take them outdoors briefly, be sure they have protection in the form of a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and broad-spectrum sunscreen. Sunburn affects your body’s ability to cool itself, so avoid it at any cost.
5. Stay cool outside the house. If the house is too hot, you may need to take your senior elsewhere to keep them cool and comfortable. Seek senior-friendly places that provide air conditioning, such as a senior center, recreation center, public library, shopping mall or store, coffee shop or restaurant, or a relative or friend’s house.
6. Use caution with electric fans. Because electric fans can trick the body into thinking it’s cooler than it is, they can do more harm than good, especially for older adults. Electric fans can be used if the temperature is below the 90s; once it rises above that, it’s better to use an air conditioner or take a cool shower or bath.
Remember: heat stroke is both predictable and preventable. Use common sense, such as never leaving someone in a parked car where the temperature can rise 20 degrees F in 10 minutes. Be sure seniors take it easy during the hottest parts of the day, and encourage them to drink frequently and rest in cool spots.