What Seniors Need to Know about Heat-Related What Seniors Need to Know about Heat-Related IllnessIllness

This summer is shaping up to be hotter than normal across nearly all of the continental US, and that means everyone needs to know the signs of heat sickness. Heat exhaustion can catch anyone off guard, especially seniors, because they can become dehydrated quickly. Here’s how to protect yourself from heat stress and what to do if you or someone you know develops heat-related illness.

What is heat-related illness?

There are two types of illness directly related to overheating: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion occurs when a person gets too hot and becomes fatigued, nauseated, faint, or weak. A headache, dizziness, and profuse sweating can also be symptoms of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can rapidly turn into a potentially fatal heat stroke, which happens when a person’s body temperature rises above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, has a seizure, or lapses into a coma.

Both heat exhaustion and heat stroke are medical emergencies, especially for older adults, because they tend to get dehydrated faster than younger people.

Treatment for heat-related illness

Anyone over age 65 who shows heat exhaustion symptoms should get medical help right away, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Heat stroke symptoms warrant a call to 911. While you’re waiting for help:

  • move yourself or the ill person indoors to air conditioning or into the shade if you’re stuck outside
  • lie down
  • put damp towels on your skin or soak your clothes in cool water

If you or someone else has heat exhaustion symptoms, take or offer sips of water. In the case of full-on heat stroke, doctors say not to drink or give fluids while you wait for paramedics.

Ways to prevent heat-related illness

Prevention is by far the best approach when it comes to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. On hot summer days, stay indoors out of the sun and drink extra water. Use your air conditioner if you have one. Health experts say a fan alone can’t protect older adults from falling ill during extreme heat. If your air conditioner can’t keep up with the heat or if you don’t have one, call a neighbor, friend, or your local 311 line to find out about air-conditioned heat shelters in your area.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol on hot days and keep your clothing light and loose to cut your risk of overheating. Other precautions you can take include taking a cool (not freezing) bath or shower and preparing meals that don’t require you to turn on your oven.

Special tips for caregivers of dementia patients

Helping people with dementia and swallowing disorders to stay hydrated is a challenge even when the weather is mild. On hot days, it’s a critical task. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends a variety of water-rich foods in addition to liquids. They include

  • popsicles
  • smoothies
  • melons and other watery fruits (such as citrus and grapes)
  • flavored milk and milkshakes
  • gelatin cubes
  • fruit, vegetables, and pasta that have been cooked in water

You can also serve cold soups, puddings made with milk, and salads with fresh tomato and cucumber slices. Learn more about recognizing and preventing dehydration here.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


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