By Christian Worstell
When summer temperatures rise, elders and their caregivers should take heed. Seniors are much more susceptible to suffering from heatstroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration when the mercury rises. In fact, studies show that from 1999 to 2009, approximately 40% of the fatalities from heatstroke were people 65 years of age and older.
What Is Heatstroke?
There are several different types of heat injury, most of which begin with dehydration. Dehydration occurs when a person's body loses more water than it takes in. We lose fluids from sweating, breathing and urinating. Vomiting and diarrhea also cause the body to lose fluids.
Symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, dry mouth, thirst, headache, muscle weakness, reduced urine output, or dark urine. If you notice any signs of dehydration, drink water, juice or rehydration drinks to restore fluids. Watermelon, strawberries, celery and cucumbers have a high water content that helps restore fluids as well. Avoid coffee, tea and alcohol.
If dehydration goes unchecked, it can quickly progress to heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Heatstroke is a serious condition that must be treated immediately. When internal mechanisms of the body are not able to cope with a hot environment or extreme physical activity during hot weather, the core body temperature rises. If your temperature rises to 104 degrees F or higher, you may be experiencing heatstroke. Other signs of heatstroke include:
• Hot, dry skin with little or no sweating.
• Confusion, slurred speech, seizure, agitation and delirium.
• Increased pulse rate and racing heartbeat.
• Nausea or vomiting.
• Shallow, rapid breathing.
Causes of Heatstroke
Anyone of any age can develop heatstroke. However, there are several reasons why people over 65 are more prone to it.
As people age, deterioration of the central nervous system affects the body's ability to regulate internal temperature. Normally, sweat helps regulate body temperature. As sweat evaporates, it cools the skin and takes heat with it. But when the weather is hot and humid, it is more difficult for moisture to evaporate. If you are already dehydrated, a heatstroke can occur if you go out in hot weather or exercise vigorously in a hot environment.
Other factors that can cause heatstroke include wearing heavy, tight clothing that can trap heat next to the body. Some medications, including several heart medicines and antidepressants, remove fluids from the body, constrict blood vessels, or alter sodium levels. If you are overweight, diabetic, or have heart or lung disease, you may be at a higher risk of developing heatstroke. Drinking alcohol can also cause heatstroke because it affects the body's ability to control its internal temperature.
How to Treat Heatstroke
Heatstroke is a medical emergency. High internal temperatures can damage internal organs, muscles and the brain. If not treated quickly, the risk of death increases. Call for emergency medical help immediately if you think someone may have heatstroke.
While help is on the way, do whatever is possible to bring the person’s temperature down. If you are outdoors, take the person to a shady spot. If possible, get the person into air conditioning or under a fan. If the person is alert and able to drink, give water or other fluids to start rehydration. Do not give caffeine or alcohol. Remove as much clothing as possible to expose more skin to cool air.
Cool the skin with water. If the person is able, showering or bathing in cool water will help. If you are outside, spray the person with water from a hose. Give a sponge bath, or put wet towels on strategic points, including the top of the head, back of the neck, groin, armpits and wrists.
There are several steps you can take to prevent heatstroke. If you live in a hot climate or an area experiencing a heat wave, stay indoors during the heat of the day. If you do not have air conditioning, go to an air conditioned building such as a mall or library. Wear lightweight, breathable fabrics like cotton and linen. If you must go out, wear a hat.
Stay hydrated. Drink water, rehydration drinks, and juice. Eat vegetables and fruit with high water content. Ask friends and relatives to check on you throughout the day. Most importantly, be aware of the signs of dehydration and heatstroke. If you feel dizzy, faint or have trouble breathing, take a cool shower and seek help.
Being aware and using common sense can help you stay comfortable and beat the heat.