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Older adults need to take precautions in extreme heat


Many Oklahomans across the state are enjoying summertime activities. Parks and local swimming pools are seeing more and more visitors throughout the season.

While the nearly triple-digit heat can be extremely uncomfortable for some, people age 65 years and older need to take extra precautions during this hot time of year, said Jan Johnston, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension gerontology specialist.

"Older adults are more prone to heat stress than younger people and this can be caused by several factors," Johnston said. "First, older adults don't adjust as well as younger people to sudden changes in temperature. Also, seniors are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that upsets the body's normal response to heat. In addition, some prescription medications can impair the body's natural ability to regulate its temperature or inhibit perspiration."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Heat stroke occurs when a person's body becomes unable to control its temperature. When this happens the body's temperature rises rapidly and loses its ability to sweat and cool down.

Johnston said the warning signs of heat stroke will vary, but can include red, hot and dry skin; rapid, strong pulse; a very high body temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit or above; dizziness, nausea; or a throbbing headache.

"Heat exhaustion, while serious, is a milder form of heat-related illness," she said. "It can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Warning signs may include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, fast and shallow breathing, fainting, a fast and weak pulse rate and cool and moist skin."

There are a number of things a person can do to protect oneself from heat-related stress. Drink cool, nonalcoholic beverages. For individuals who may be on water pills, ask your doctor how much liquid you should consume. Try to avoid extremely cold liquids because they can cause cramps.

A cool shower or sponge bath is a great way to cool down. Seek an air-conditioned environment whenever possible.

"If your home isn't air conditioned, consider spending time at an air-conditioned shopping mall or public library to cool off," Johnston said. "Try to remain indoors as much as possible. In addition, wear lightweight clothing and don't engage in strenuous activities."

In an effort to help protect older relatives and neighbors who may be at risk for heat stress, visit them regularly and check for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. For older adults who have transportation problems, offer to take them to locations that are air-conditioned. Also, make sure your elderly relative or neighbor has access to an electric fan. Some communities have programs available that will provide free fans to seniors.

Johnston said if you see any signs of severe heat stress, it is possible you are dealing with a life-threatening emergency. If this occurs, have someone call for immediate medical assistance while you begin cooling the affected person. Cooling measures include:

--Get the person to a shady area.

--Cool the person rapidly by immersion in a tub of cool water, putting the person in a cool shower, spray the person with cool water from a garden hose or sponge the person with cold water.

--If the humidity is low, wrap the person in a cool, wet sheet and fan vigorously.

--Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101-102 degrees Fahrenheit or until emergency help arrives.

--In the event emergency medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital emergency room for further instruction.

"While many Oklahomans enjoy the summer season and spend many hours outdoors, heat-related illnesses should be taken seriously," Johnston said. "Knowing what to do in an emergency situation can mean the difference between life and death."

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