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Beware Heat Illness 

Heat illnesses can sneak up on older adults.
But with a little savvy, you can protect yourself this summer.

That sun feels great, doesn’t it? Safe behind your sunscreen, you’re basking in that Vitamin D your doctor keeps talking about.

But what’s up with your pulse? It feels a little fast, and maybe the world spun for just a second there. You feel achy and tired — maybe you’re just coming down with something.

Or maybe not. Heat illnesses can creep up on older adults more quickly than other age groups and require extra precautions.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the range of heat illnesses — heat stroke, heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps and heat exhaustion — fall under the term hyperthermia (spelled with an “er”). This differs from the better-known hypothermia, which is related to cold-weather dangers.

For several reasons, older adults are more susceptible to heat-induced illnesses, NIH notes.  These include:

  • Changes in aging skin, such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands;
  • Heart, lung and kidney diseases, and illnesses causing general weakness or fever;
  • High blood pressure or other conditions requiring such diet changes as restricting salt;
  • Medications such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers and certain heart and blood pressure drugs that prevent perspiration;
  • Using multiple types of drugs;
  • Being substantially over- or underweight;
  • The effects of alcohol; and
  • Dehydration.

A quick note from the agency: NIH advises not taking new drugs or discontinuing prescribed drugs during hot days without talking to your doctor.

Environmental factors also can bring on hyperthermia, including living in extremely hot quarters, using public transportation, visiting overcrowded places, and over-dressing.

Heat illnesses are costly: An April 2012 article in the American Journal of Public Health says Medicare measured hyperthermia and hypothermia treatments during 2004 and 2005. Of the 18,000-plus visits for treatment overall, 78 percent required an emergency room. More than half of those emergency visits were for hyperthermia, and of those, 11 percent resulted in inpatient care. Total annual costs for the visits reached $36 million – considerably less than hypothermia’s $98 million annually (which required more inpatient care). Still, that $36 million is substantial and $25 million of that was in 2005 alone (a year of heat waves), more than twice the $11 million spent in 2004.

That’s one reason why it’s so important to recognize the symptoms as early as possible, in yourself and in others. According to the Center for Disease Control, signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness and weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, cool and moist skin, a fast and weak pulse, and fast and shallow breathing. Signs of the more serious heat stroke include a throbbing headache; a 103 degree or higher body temperature; red, hot and dry skin with no sweating; a rapid, strong pulse; dizziness; and nausea.

If you suspect a heat illness, get help first and fast – either through 911 or if nearby, Spectrum’s staff. Meantime, CDC says to get to shade and cool yourself or the overheated person rapidly, using whatever means possible. Do not take nor give alcohol. Keep cooling until body temperature lowers or help arrives.

But prevention is surely the best medicine. When outdoors, use Spectrum’s landscaping for shelter, which offers strategically-placed shade. Preventing exposure to sun and heat is a huge issue, says Keith Clarke, Director of Landscape.

“In Arizona, we’re required to have a certain square footage of shade,” on paved areas, he says. But at any location, Clarke’s designers consider the sun’s angle, particularly at the hottest part of the day, and arrange shade accordingly, using for example, groupings of three trees (which often take about three years to grow out) or the landscaping around dining patios and, in Arizona, around pools. All outdoor tables have umbrellas to block the sun. Memory gardens are protected by permanent shade, with sitting areas and patio tables arranged out of the sun.

A few other tips from the CDC to prevent hyperthermia:

  • Hydrate with non-alcoholic beverages. If your doctor limits fluids, ask about how that applies in hot weather. And watch extremely cold liquids, which can cause cramps.
  • Take cool showers, baths or sponge baths.
  • Utilize the air-conditioning in your location, or find another cooling center when out and about.
  • Wear lightweight clothing, and stay in during the hottest parts of the day.
  • Avoid strenuous activities.

Have fun in the sun this summer, as always, but don’t let the heat creep up on you. Be savvy. In the face of the potential for heat illnesses, coolness rules.