Heat-related illnesses come in varying degrees. The longer an older person is overheated or exposed to the sun without protection, the greater the risk. Often the first symptom is heat syncope, a sudden dizziness that can happen when you’re too active in hot weather. Those taking a beta blocker for their heart are even more likely to feel faint. The best remedy is to rest in a cool place with your feet up and drink water until the dizzy feeling disappears.
Heat cramps, which are painful muscle spasms in the stomach, arms, or legs, result from overheating, particularly after hard work or intense exercise. You may not experience a change in your body’s temperature or pulse, but your skin will likely feel moist and cool. Stop whatever physical activity you’re doing and rest somewhere cool. Be sure to drink plenty of the right fluids, such as water and electrolyte-loaded sports drinks; stay away from alcohol or caffeinated beverages.
Another side effect of too much sun can be heat edema, a swelling in your feet and ankles. The swelling will go down once you put your legs up.
Sunburns, caused by too much sun exposure, are of varying intensity. Minor sunburns lead to redness, tenderness, blisters, heat, and peeling. Severe reactions can cause fever, chills, rash, or nausea. Wearing protective clothing while in the sun and applying sunscreen often can help prevent sunburns. If burned, moisturize affected areas and stay out of the sun while healing.
When you sweat too much, your skin can develop an irritation known as heat rash. Your skin may feel itchy, tingly, or painful. It may look like red clusters of small blisters with pimples. It’s essential to dry the infected area and use powder to soothe the rash.
Heat exhaustion is more severe than the other heat-related illnesses mentioned so far. It’s your body’s way of telling you it can no longer keep itself cool. Telltale symptoms include feeling thirsty, dizzy, weak, uncoordinated, sweaty, or nauseated. You may have a rapid pulse and cold, clammy skin. Immediately rest in a cool place and start drinking fluids. If you don’t start feeling better soon, get medical care so that your condition doesn’t progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related condition. During this medical emergency, the body’s temperature rises above 104 degrees. Signs of heat stroke are fainting, confusion, strange behavior, changes in pulse (either strong and rapid or slow and weak), dry or flushed skin, and no sweating even though hot. Those experiencing such symptoms must immediately seek medical help and move to a cooler place. Even better, try to lower your body temperature with cool clothes, a cool bath or shower (not a cold one, as that could put the person into shock), or a fan.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Take the following precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses in seniors:
- Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids regardless of activity level. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to take a drink. Eat fruits and vegetables that are high in water content, such as watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Eliminate caffeinated beverages, which are also dehydrating. Remember that a dehydrated body cannot function normally. Elderly people are at greater risk because their bodies cannot access water.
- Limit the use of your oven or stove.
- Wear appropriate clothing for the weather, such as light-colored, lightweight, and loosely fitting clothes.
- When outside, wear a hat, try to stay in the shade, and move slowly to avoid overheating.
- While exercise for seniors is necessary, use common sense in the summer. Schedule outdoor physical activities or training during early morning or late evening hours. Limit the duration of physical exertion during high humidity, when your body can’t cool off appropriately since sweat does not evaporate quickly.
- Stay in air-conditioned areas when indoors, or take a cool shower or bath. If you don’t have air conditioning, consider staying with friends or family during a heat wave. If a portable fan is being used, place it near an electrical outlet to avoid using an extension cord that can become a tripping hazard.
- Apply sunscreen SPF 30+ a half hour before going out in the sun.
- Find out whether any medications you’re taking affect your body temperature.
- If your loved ones don’t live nearby, consider using a remote body or home temperature sensor or monitor.
Realize that certain seniors are at greater risk than others. Keep an even closer eye on those with one or more of the following factors:
- Take drugs that make it harder for the body to cool itself, such as sedatives, tranquilizers, blood pressure medications, diuretics, and heart medications
- Take several prescription drugs at the same time
- Are overweight or underweight
- Have health problems such as cardiovascular, lung, or kidney disease
- Experienced changes in the skin caused by aging
- Have a current or recent illness that causes weakness or fever
- Live in an environment with no air conditioning or fans
- Are prone to becoming dehydrated or having a tendency to drink alcoholic beverages