Extreme Heat Dangerous for the Elderly

cover4By Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues

Houston- The dog days of August are approaching and Texas needs to be prepared for heat-related illnesses, especially among the elderly.

These deaths and illness are preventable, yet annually many people still succumb to extreme heat.

Historically, from 1979-2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States. During this period, more people in this country died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

In 2001, 300 deaths were caused by excessive heat exposure, according to statistics from the The National Center for Environmental Health’s Health Studies Branch (HSB) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

People suffer heat-related illness when their bodies are unable to compensate and properly cool themselves. The body normally cools itself by sweating, but under some conditions, sweating just isn’t enough. In such cases, a person’s body temperature rises rapidly. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.

Several factors affect the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly. Other conditions related to risk include age, obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, and prescription drug and alcohol use.

Because heat-related deaths are preventable, people need to be aware of who is at greatest risk and what actions can be taken to prevent a heat-related illness or death.

The elderly, the very young, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at highest risk. However, even young and healthy individuals can succumb to heat if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.

Air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat-related illness and death. If a home is not air-conditioned, people can reduce their risk for heat-related illness by spending time in public facilities that are air-conditioned.

Summertime activity, whether on the playing field or the construction site, must be balanced with measures that aid the body’s cooling mechanisms and prevent heat-related illness.

Who is At Risk?

Elderly people (that is, people aged 65 years and older) are more prone to heat stress than younger people for several reasons:

Elderly people do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature.

They are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat.

They are more likely to take prescription medicines that impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or that inhibit perspiration.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the body loses its ability to sweat, and it is unable to cool down. Body temperatures rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.

Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke

Warning signs vary but may include the following:

An extremely high body temperature (above 103°F)

Red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating)

Rapid, strong pulse

Throbbing headache

Dizziness

Nausea

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids.

Signs and Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Warning signs vary but may include the following:

Heavy sweating

Paleness

Muscle Cramps

Tiredness

Weakness

Dizziness

Headache

Nausea or vomiting

Fainting

Skin: may be cool and moist

Pulse rate: fast and weak

Breathing: fast and shallow

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

You can follow these prevention tips to protect yourself from heat-related stress:

Drink cool, nonalcoholic beverages. (If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him how much you should drink when the weather is hot. Also, avoid extremely cold liquids because they can cause cramps.)

Rest.

Take a cool shower, bath, or sponge bath.

If possible, seek an air-conditioned environment. (If you don’t have air conditioning, consider visiting an air-conditioned shopping mall or public library to cool off.)

Wear lightweight clothing.

If possible, remain indoors in the heat of the day.

Do not engage in strenuous activities.

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