Summer's heat puts everyone at potential risk for heat-related illness, but seniors and people with chronic health problems are especially vulnerable.
Heat illnesses -- collectively known as hyperthermia -- include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat fatigue and a life-threatening condition called heat stroke. A person's risk for heat illness depends on a number of factors, including outside temperature, general health and individual lifestyle, according to the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA).
The NIA says individual and health factors that increase the risk of heat illness include:
- Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands.
- Alcohol use, dehydration, and being significantly overweight or underweight.
- Heart, lung and kidney diseases, and any illness that causes general weakness or fever.
- High blood pressure or other health issues that require diet changes. For example, people on salt-restricted diets may be at increased risk. However, people should not take salt pills without first consulting a doctor.
- Reduced perspiration caused by medications such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers and certain heart and blood pressure drugs.
- Taking multiple medications. But, you should continue to take all prescribed medications and discuss possible problems with your doctor.
Lifestyle factors that increase the risk of heat illness include: living in housing without air conditioning; not drinking enough water; not understanding how to respond to weather conditions; overdressing; going to overcrowded places; having difficulty getting around; and lack of access to transportation, according to the NIA.
Older people, especially those with chronic health conditions, should stay indoors on hot and humid days, especially when there's an air pollution alert. They should have air conditioning or at least a fan and air circulation.
People without air conditioning should go to public places that have air conditioning, such as senior centers, libraries, shopping malls and movie theaters. Another option is to go to a cooling center, which are operated by local public health agencies, social service groups and other organizations in many communities, the NIA advises.
If someone appears to be suffering from heat illness, get them out of the heat and into a shady, cool or air-conditioned place, and have them lie down. If you suspect heat stroke, call 911.
Apply cold, wet cloths to the person's wrists, neck, armpits and groin. Blood passes close to the surface of the skin in these locations, and placing cold cloths at these points can help cool the blood. Another option is to help the person bathe or sponge off with cool water, according to the NIA.
If the person is able to swallow safely, offer them fluids such as water or fruit and vegetable juices. Don't give them alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.