More Americans die each year from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. While natural disasters hit unexpectedly and are unavoidable, heat-related deaths are 100 percent preventable.
Extreme heat is especially dangerous to people ages 65 and older, as 40 percent of heat-related deaths occur in this age group. Heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion can lead to permanent damage or death if not caught and properly treated right away. Learn the signs and symptoms of these heat-related illnesses and how to protect yourself from the dangers of the sun this summer!
How Heat Affects Older Bodies
Heat-related illness is a risk for everyone during the hot summer months, but older adults face different dangers from overexposure to heat. Growing older reduces our ability to regulate body temperature as effectively. Aging people are also more likely to suffer from chronic conditions and take medication that changes the way their body adapts to temperature. Both of these put older adults at a higher risk of developing a heat-related illness.
It's Not Always Fun in the Sun
Heat cramps, or involuntary muscle spasms, are caused by moderate activity in a hot environment and dehydration. If you spend large portions of your day outdoors doing physical activities, such as gardening, mowing, bike riding or walking, be sure to keep hydrated before and after physical activities.
If you are suffering from heat cramps, take a break from your activity to spend some time cooling off in the AC while drinking some water to allow your body to recover.
Heat exhaustion can be brought on by one of two things: water or salt depletion. If you are prone to excessive sweating when outside in the heat, you may be at risk for this heat-related illness. If you spend time outdoors doing physical activities that cause more excessive sweating, be sure to not only drink plenty of water but also a sports drink containing electrolytes to replenish the salts in your body.
If you feel you are suffering from heat exhaustion, move indoors or to a shaded area and replace the fluids your body has lost through sweating. If your symptoms worsen or you begin vomiting, see a health care provider as heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
A heat stroke occurs when your body is unable to regulate temperature. Your body normally produces sweat to cool down when it begins to overheat. As we age, however, our bodies become less effective at maintaining and controlling a regular body temperature, making older adults more at risk of developing a heat stroke if out in the sun for extended periods of time. A person suffering from a heat stroke displays symptoms including:
- Slurred speech
- Elevated body temperature with a lack of sweating
If you or a loved one shows signs of heat stroke, move to an air-conditioned room, place cool wet clothes on the skin, rehydrate with water and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
As you grow older, your skin loses some of its protective qualities due to sun exposure. Therefore, as we age, our skin is more susceptible to sun damage and sunburns. If you enjoy outdoor activities but don't use proper sun protection, you may suffer from severe sunburn, blisters or second and third-degree burns. It's important to apply broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF level of 15 or higher 15 to 30 minutes before going outside and reapply regularly every few hours. Protective clothing like hats and long sleeve linen shirts and pants can also help keep skin out of direct sunlight.
If you or a loved one suffered a sunburn while outside, apply aloe vera to the burn and watch it for a couple of days to make sure no blisters appear. See a doctors if:
- The sunburn worsens
- Severe blisters form
- Infection develops
- The sunburn is accompanied by a high fever or serious pain
A heat rash presents itself in a patch of tiny red bumps in areas where sweat glands have been blocked. Sweat glands can be blocked by tight fitting, non-breathable clothes. To prevent heat rashes, stay hydrated and wear loose fitting, protective clothing outside in the sun when possible.
If you get a heat rash, move to a shaded or air-conditioned area, remove tight clothing around the rash and let air dry. Do not apply ointment as it can irritate the skin.
Don't Get Burnt by the Sun This Summer
Don't let heat-related illnesses slow you or your loved ones down this summer. , Prevent heat-related illness this summer by:
- Drinking water every 15 minutes, even if you don't feel thirsty.
- Resting in the shade when possible.
- Wearing light colored clothing, sunglasses and a hat.
- Checking the heat index before going outside.
- Avoid spending long periods of time outdoors between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Applying sunscreen every 30 minutes.
For more tips on healthy living, senior safety and staying engaged as you age, check out the rest of our blog and community blogs!