Avoid heat stroke

Seniors can face special challenges during high temperatures and elevated humidity

Too hot elderly woman
Don’t rely on a fan as your primary cooling device during an extreme heat event

Heat-related illness is a serious problem in Minnesota, especially for older adults.

Though air conditioning keeps most (but not all) of our homes and buildings cool, exposure to the elements in summer should bring with it caution for seniors — and all ages — in cases of extreme heat.

Understanding the way your body responds to heat can help you treat heat-related illness before it becomes a threat.

How it works

The body uses two main physiologic mechanisms to keep itself cool. The first is dilation of blood vessels in the skin to increase blood flow and promote heat loss by radiation. The next is sweating — evaporation cools the skin and the body.

Heat illness can occur when the body’s thermoregulation systems are overwhelmed by a combination of excessive metabolic production of heat (exertion), excessive environmental heat and impaired heat loss.

Exertional-heat illness is common in outdoor laborers, athletes and first responders wearing heavy protective equipment. For older individuals, even mild exertion can be dangerous if it’s prolonged when it’s hot and muggy.

Non-exertional heat illness occurs most often in elderly and infirm individuals with impaired heat-loss mechanisms. Certain medications that hinder sweating can compound problems for people with age-related impairment of sweating.

Problems arise more readily if there’s exposure to high humidity as well as high temperature because a humid environment makes sweating less effective in cooling the body.

The symptoms

The initial symptoms of heat illness are often called heat exhaustion. They include muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea, headache and excessive sweating. Body temperature may become as high as 104 degrees.

If left untreated, heat exhaustion may become heat stroke, a more serious and life-threatening condition.

Sweating ceases, body temperature rises to more than 104 degrees, blood pressure drops and pulse rises.

Confusion and collapse are common.

The cure

To avoid a heat illness, an ounce of prevention is important:

Watch the temperature. Pay attention to weather forecasts and heat alerts. If it’s very hot and humid, stay indoors in an air-conditioned place.

Don’t rely on a fan as your primary cooling device during an extreme-heat event.

Don’t use the stove or oven to cook. It will make you and your house hotter.

Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration is a key factor in heat illness. Help your body sweat and cool down by staying well-hydrated with water. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink fluids.

Dress appropriately. Lightweight, loose-fitting clothing helps sweat evaporate and keeps you cooler. Avoid dark colors, which can absorb heat. If you go outdoors, wear a light-colored, wide-brimmed hat.

Understand your medical risks. Ask your doctor if you’re taking any medications — or if you have any medical conditions — that could increase your risk of heat-related illnesses.

If you start to feel ill after prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, drink extra fluids, take a cool bath or shower and have a family member or friend check on you.

Dr. Michael Spilane, now retired, spent more than four decades practicing and teaching geriatric medicine in St. Paul.