Elder man looking upset as he sits and thinks in an armchair

One of the top news stories this summer is the unusually hot weather, as hundreds of millions of Americans have faced official heat warnings due to record-breaking temperatures across the country. Fortunately, most of us have access to air conditioning, so unless you need to work outside, cruelly hot days usually are not much more than an uncomfortable inconvenience for short periods of time.

Nonetheless, keep in mind that heat can kill you, literally.

According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, an average of approximately 600 people die in the United States every year because of heat stroke and sun stroke, with adults over age 65 being at higher risk.

Older individuals are naturally more susceptible to heat-related problems because their bodies and immune systems do not adjust to temperature extremes as well as the bodies and immune systems of those who are younger. Furthermore, many senior adults have existing health conditions, which can compromise their physical responses to heat and sun. Some basic medications, such as diuretics, can alter your fluid balance and your body’s ability to cool itself.

Know the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion

One of the most serious heat-related illnesses is heat stroke, which can occur when a person’s body is unable to control its temperature, often because its natural perspiration system has shut down. When that happens, the body may rise to dangerously high temperatures (105 to 106°F) within minutes. Like other types of stroke, heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if not treated right away.

In addition to high body temperature – anything above 103°F – warning signs of heat stroke may include dry skin, a throbbing headache, rapid heart rate, dizziness/confusion, nausea, and in extreme instances, unconsciousness.

If you encounter someone with those symptoms, immediately get them to a cooler place and do whatever you can to lower their temperature, such as sponging or spraying them with cool water, wrapping them in a wet blanket, and putting them in front of a fan. If the person’s temperature doesn’t quickly drop below about 101°F, call your doctor or 911. Also be sure to provide fluids, but nothing with caffeine or alcohol.

Another concern is heat exhaustion, which is usually milder than heat stroke, but still a threat. Heat exhaustion can develop after prolonged exposure to high temperatures and insufficient fluid levels. Those most susceptible to heat exhaustion are senior citizens, people with high blood pressure, individuals who are overweight, and anyone working or exercising vigorously in a hot environment.

Early warning signs of heat exhaustion include a weak pulse, shallow breathing, dry mouth, lack of perspiration, chills, and overall weakness. Someone with these symptoms should immediately relax in a cool place and consume plenty of nonalcoholic fluids. Severe, untreated heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. If the symptoms last more than an hour, get medical attention.

Avoiding Heat-related Illness

The best solution for heat-related illnesses is simply to prevent them. The American Red Cross and other organizations recommend many easy steps to help you be safe from the heat and sun, such as:

• Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, even if you do not feel thirsty. Avoid caffeine or alcohol.

• Wear lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing.

• During the hottest part of the day, stay inside and avoid strenuous activities (or postpone them).

• If you must be outdoors, pace yourself and take frequent breaks.

• Eat smaller meals.

• In the sun, wear a hat to keep your head cooler.

• Use a high-SPF sunscreen when outdoors.

• Have a “buddy system” with which you and your friends or family can check on each other.

As your body perspires, it also naturally loses salts and minerals that should be replaced, but if you are on a low-sodium diet, or have diabetes or high blood pressure, consult your doctor before consuming salt tablets or high-energy sports drinks.

Being ready for the future

By keeping cool and using common sense, you most likely will not suffer a heat-related illness. However, the odds of being afflicted by some other ailment increase with every day we age.

That is why you should have your personal affairs in order. To protect your assets and have contingency plans for your later-life medical decisions, it is essential to obtain important legal documents such as a Power of Attorney, health directives, wills, and other safeguards.
The experienced elder law attorneys at TuckerAllen can provide insightful guidance to help you understand your options and make plans to protect you and your family.

To learn more, contact us to schedule an initial consultation to discuss your individual needs.

Tips for Avoiding Heat Stroke