Hot Weather Dangers for Seniors

Sunrise Senior Living  |  June 23, 2017
Sunburn, heat stroke and dehydration are all serious concerns for seniors during the summer.
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Hot summer weather can provide plenty of opportunities for fun, but it carries some risks as well. 

While it's great to pack the family up for an afternoon at the beach, or to spend time outdoors for a cookout or picnic, when you're the caregiver for an older loved one you have some extra precautions to take. Older adults are more vulnerable to certain health ailments, due to age-related changes to their immune system and the possible effects of chronic illnesses or injuries. It's important to keep an eye on them when the temperature increases to quickly identify and treat any of these heat-related conditions:

1. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke
If your loved one's core body temperature rises too high, they can be at risk for hyperthermia, also known as heat exhaustion or the more serious heat stroke.

  • Heat exhaustion is the first stage of hyperthermia. When a person spends too much time in extreme heat or high humidity, they'll start to feel the effects of overheating. Symptoms include heavy sweaty, dizziness, faster and weaker pulse, low blood pressure, nausea and headache, according to the Mayo Clinic. Heat exhaustion typically takes place when a person's temperature is above the normal 98.6 F, but under 104 F. 
  • Heat stroke is more severe than heat exhaustion. This takes place when a person heats to an internal temperature at or above 104 F. Other symptoms include confusion, slurred speech, seizures, vomiting, red skin, rapid breathing, fast heart rate and headache, as reported by the Mayo Clinic. 

If left untreated, heat stroke can cause internal organs to shut down and may lead to death.

For both conditions, it's important to get your loved one out of the heat immediately. Move them to the shade if they're out in the sun, or preferably take them inside. Take off any extra layers of clothing to help them cool faster and have them drink as much water as they can, or a hydrating sports drink that contains electrolytes. If you suspect your loved one has heat exhaustion, call a doctor if their symptoms don't improve after one hour. In the case of a heat stroke, take them to an emergency room or call 911 right away. To help lower body temperature quickly, try submerging your loved one in a cool bath if possible, or dab them with a damp, cool cloth while they sit in front of a fan.

"It can take just minutes for the inside of a car to heat to dangerous levels."

The Mayo Clinic also warns that people over the age of 65 will typically have a harder time regulating their body temperatures than younger people, due to a weakening of their central nervous system. If your loved one has heart or lung disease they are at an elevated risk, and some medications can exacerbate the effects of overheating as well. 

To help prevent hyperthermia, be sure your loved one takes frequent breaks from physical activity. If you're hiking together or walking on the beach, sit and rest in the shade from time to time, even if they don't feel tired. They should also drink plenty of water throughout the day. 

Your home should be kept at a reasonable temperature for safety as well. Use fans and air conditioning when possible, and make sure your loved one stays hydrated throughout the day, even if they are just resting indoors. It's possible to overheat even when they aren't out in the sun.

Seniors should never be left locked in an unattended car for any length of time, either. According to the National Weather Service, it can take just minutes for the inside of a car to heat to dangerous levels, even if the windows are rolled down or the car is parked in the shade. 

Sunburn causes severe skin damage that can make your loved one sick.Sunburn causes severe skin damage that can make your loved one sick.

2. Sunburn and sun poisoning
Getting sunburned is a painful experience and can become extremely dangerous if it's bad enough. South Dakota State University reports that seniors are more sensitive to the effects of the sun and can burn more quickly than younger adults. 

Severe sunburn can peel, blister and cause fevers. As the Cleveland Clinic reports, sunburn damages skin at a cellular level, which can lead to significant damage, bruising and eventually skin cancer. Today.com differentiates sunburn from sun poisoning by adding that sun poisoning usually also included bumps that may itch, chills and nausea.

To treat sunburn, you can try over-the-counter products like aspirin, or topical ointments such as aloe vera gel. If your loved one feels sick or fatigued after getting a sunburn, however, they should go see a doctor as soon as possible. 

To prevent sunburn or sun poisoning, you need to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF. This should be applied at least 20 to 30 minutes before going outside and again every two hours they're outside. Even if it's a cloudy day, your loved one should still apply sunscreen, as harmful UV rays can penetrate the cloud cover.

They should avoid being out in the sun when it's at its peak from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. If they need to be out during these hours, or any time they are facing long exposures to the sunlight, they should use sunglasses, wide brim hats and light, long-sleeved coverings to protect their skin from prolonged direct contact with the sunshine. When out during the day, it's important that they take periodic breaks to rest in the shade. If they start to feel hot or their skin begins to look red or pink, they should go indoors. 

Keep in mind that certain medications will make seniors even more sensitive to the effects of the sun. Check their prescriptions or talk to their doctors so you know if there are any medicines you need to look out for. 

Dehydration is a dangerous risk in the summer - be sure your loved one drinks plenty of water when it's warm out. Dehydration is a dangerous risk in the summer - be sure your loved one drinks plenty of water when it's warm out.

3. Dehydration
Not getting enough fluids is easy to do when it's hot outside. Your loved one will be sweating more during the heat of the summer, and if they aren't making a conscious effort to increase their water intake they can quickly succumb to dehydration. 

When a person gets dehydrated, it makes it hard for all of their body's systems to function properly, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling thirsty.
  • Having a dry or sticky mouth.
  • Not urinating much, or having dark-colored urine.
  • Having headaches.
  • Experiencing muscle cramps.

If dehydration is severe, symptoms will expand to include rapid heartbeat, dry skin, dizziness, confusion and rapid and shallow breathing.

Dehydration is easily treated if you act quickly. If you suspect your loved one is dehydrated, they should drink water or a sports drinks fortified with electrolytes. If drinking water is hard because their dehydration has made them feel ill, they may opt to suck on ice cubes or gently sip water instead.

If ingesting more liquids doesn't relieve symptoms, or your loved one loses consciousness at any time, call 911 or take them to an emergency room. Severe, prolonged dehydration can be deadly. Don't wait for signs of dehydration before you start ensuring that your loved one is drinking enough water - be proactive and give them plenty of access to hydrating fluids and keep them cool in the summer.

Other illnesses can exacerbate dehydration. If your loved one is sick and experiencing vomiting or diarrhea as well, it's important that they have a steady intake of fluids. 

Have fun this summer
With so many outdoor activities to enjoy, there's no reason to stay inside and hide from the sun all summer. Just be sure to follow safety precautions - like applying sunscreen, providing plenty of water and helping your older loved one take breaks to rest in the shade - and they can stay safe and healthy all season long.

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