Hot weather health risks for older people

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A look at the causes and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke, and how to treat and prevent it. Older people are particularly susceptible during hot weather, so this is useful advice for carers of older loved ones.

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are two serious conditions that can occur if you get too hot. Older people are at particular risk as their bodies are less effective at cooling down, and also everyday exercise is more strenuous as you get older.

  • Heat exhaustion is where you become very hot and start to lose water or salt from your body.

  • Heatstroke is where the body is no longer able to cool itself and the body’stemperature becomes dangerously high.

Heatstroke is less common, but more serious. It can put a strain on the brain, heart, lungs, liver and kidneys, and can be life-threatening. If heat exhaustion isn't spotted and treated early on, there's a risk it could lead to heatstroke.

Signs and symptoms

Heat exhaustion or heatstroke can develop quickly over a few minutes, or gradually over several hours or days. 

Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • tiredness and weakness

  • feeling faint or dizzy

  • a decrease in blood pressure

  • headache

  • muscle cramps

  • feeling and being sick

  • heavy sweating

  • intense thirst

  • a fast pulse

  • urinating less often and having much dark urine 

If left untreated, more severe symptoms of heatstroke can develop, including confusion, disorientation, seizures (fits) and a loss of consciousness.

What to do

If you think you (or someone you’re caring for) is suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke, you should:

  • lie down in a cool place – such as a room with air conditioning or somewhere in the shade

  • remove any unnecessary clothing to expose as much of the skin as possible

  • cool the skin with a cool, wet sponge or flannel, cold packs around the neck and armpits, or wrap the body in a cool, wet sheet

  • fan the skin while it's moist to help the water evaporate, which will cool the skin

  • drink fluids –ideally be water, coconut water, fruit juice or a rehydration drink.

Stay with the person until they're feeling better. Most people should start to recover within 30 minutes.

When to get medical help

Severe heat exhaustion or heatstroke requires hospital treatment.

You should call 999 for an ambulance if:

  • the person doesn't respond to the above treatment within 30 minutes

  • the person has severe symptoms, such as a loss of consciousness, confusion or seizures

Continue with the treatment outlined above until the ambulance arrives. 

If the person is feeling better after using the above measures, but you have any concerns about them, contact your GP for advice.

You're more likely to experience problems if you're dehydrated, there's little breeze or ventilation, or you're wearing tight, restrictive clothing.

Certain medications can also increase your risk of developing heat exhaustion or heatstroke, including diuretics, antihistaminesbeta-blockers, antipsychotics and recreational drugs, such as amphetamines and ecstasy.

How to prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke can often be prevented by taking sensible precautions when it's very hot.

Stay out of the heat

  • Keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm.

  • If you have to go out in the heat, walk in the shade, apply sunscreen and wear a hat.

  • Avoid extreme physical exertion.

  • Wear light, loose-fitting cotton clothes.

Cool yourself down

  • Have plenty of cold drinks, and avoid excess alcohol, caffeine and hot drinks.

  • Eat cold foods, particularly salads and fruit with a high water content.

  • Take a cool shower or bath.

  • Sprinkle water over your skin or clothing, or keep a damp cloth on the back of your neck.

If you’re not urinating frequently or your urine is dark, it's a sign that you're becoming dehydrated so drink more.

Keep your environment cool

  • Keep windows and curtains that are exposed to the sun closed during the day, but open windows at night when the temperature has dropped.

  • If possible, move into a cooler room, especially for sleeping.

  • Electric fans may provide some relief.

  • Turn off non-essential lights and electrical equipment.

  • Keep indoor plants and bowls of water in the house, as these cool the air.

 

 

 

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