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En español | Recent heat waves shimmered across the country — and around the world — bringing with them sweltering temperatures and an increased risk of heat-related illnesses.
As summer gets started from California to Maine, and even far-flung arctic Siberia (where temperatures reached 100 degrees recently), people of all ages are grappling with how to avoid heatstroke, dehydration and other heat-related illnesses this season.
Ron Citorik, 60, of Burlington, Vermont, where the recent temperature has hovered in the 90s, is an avid golfer and cyclist. He says he tries to exercise earlier in the morning or in the evening on hot days to avoid the most scorching temperatures and direct sun. “My biggest thing is hydrating,” says Citorik, who had a heart attack three years ago and is committed to staying in peak shape. “I make sure I'm drinking a lot more water."
The risk of illness is particularly high for those over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that 36 percent of heat-related deaths in the U.S. were in that age category. As we age, our bodies don't adjust well to sudden changes in temperature, and prescription medications and chronic illnesses can affect a response to heat.
"Heat can really be threatening to older adults,” says Christine E. Kistler, a physician in the Department of Family Medicine and the Division of Geriatric Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “The heat you might have been able to take in your 30s, you're not physiologically able to cope with in your 80s."
Plus, diuretics, sedatives, beta blockers and other heart and high blood pressure medicines may make it more difficult for people to cool themselves. Check with your doctor about whether medications you take could contribute to overheating.
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What to watch out for
Heatstroke and heat exhaustion top the list and can be quite dangerous, Kistler says. If you start to feel sluggish, light-headed, nauseated or dizzy after being outside, listen to your body. Get into the shade or seek out air-conditioned areas. A cool shower or pouring cold water over wrists, ankles and the back of the neck can also help get body temperature down, Kistler says.
If you're wearing a mask because of the coronavirus pandemic, make sure to take it off so you can breathe freely. If you still feel unwell after cooling down and hydrating, seek medical treatment. Kistler says she worries that people will be reluctant to seek treatment this summer because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but failure to do so for heatstroke can be dangerous.
Dehydration is a serious problem for older people. It's very important to keep up fluid intake in hot weather, says Krystal Culler, a behavioral health expert who works with community-based senior programs and adult day programs. Culler said behavioral strategies such as drinking a full cup of water with vitamins or medication, instead of a sip, can encourage people to drink more fluids. “Adding it into something that is already a part of your daily routine helps,” she says.
The CDC's guide for protecting older adults in the heat notes that people shouldn't wait until they feel thirsty to start drinking fluids. The National Academy of Medicine suggests men drink 15.5 cups of fluid per day and women drink about 11.5 cups daily.
Culler says she has found that older people tend to drink more if they use small cups which are refilled often, rather than giant “big gulp” style containers, which can look overwhelming.
Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they can be dehydrating.
Avoiding sunburn goes beyond making sure you aren't pink and peeling to the point of discomfort, says Kistler. Older people have an increased risk of skin cancer, so wear sunscreen with broad spectrum protection, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
Heat rash, that prickly, itchy skin condition, can develop if you're out in the sun. Wearing light-colored, loose clothing made of breathable fabrics can help keep you cool and prevent rashes.
Stay inside on the hottest days. Seek out air-conditioned areas. If you don't have air conditioning at home, some communities offer cooling centers during heat waves. There are also low-income energy assistance programs if you're having trouble paying your electric bill. Contact the nearest office for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for more information.
Take a dip. That could mean going for a swim or a float in a pool or a lake, but it can also mean taking a cool shower or running through a backyard sprinkler (with the kids or not).
Seek out shade. Take a walk in the woods instead of on a path in full sun, or do some gardening under a tree. If you need to go out, shift your timing to early morning or evening when the sun isn't as strong and more shade is available.
Get more water. Get in the habit of sipping regularly. Flavoring water with fruits and even vegetables like cucumber can make it more inviting, Culler says, and some reusable water bottles include a core to load with lemons, apples or strawberries. Some fruits have a high water content, so choose watermelon or grapes for snacking.