The Dog Days of Summer: Simple Tips for Heat Stroke Prevention
Each summer, more than 12,000 Americans die from heat-related illnesses. Sadly, researchers estimate that 80% of these victims are 60 or older.
If you provide care for an elderly family member, the summer months can be especially stressful. While anyone can experience heat exhaustion, older adults are particularly at risk. That’s because age-related changes affect various parts of the body, including the sweat glands, circulatory system, and brain.
We’ve previously discussed sunburn prevention and hydration tips for seniors, but today, we’re focusing on heat stroke. Keep reading to learn some tricks for keeping your care recipient cool, comfortable, and healthy all summer long.
What is heat stroke?
Heat stroke occurs when your care recipient’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher due to sun exposure or intense physical activity.
Without immediate intervention and treatment, heat stroke increases the risk of potentially serious health problems, including heart, brain, and kidney damage or premature death.
What are the symptoms of heat stroke?
The symptoms of heat stroke include:
High body temperature
Nausea or vomiting
Heat stroke can also affect your loved one’s mood, outlook, or behavior. For example, they might act confused and agitated or slur their speech.
What can family caregivers do to reduce the risk of heat stroke?
As a family caregiver, there are several things you can do to help reduce the risk of heat stroke. Kiera Powell, RN, a registered nurse, and Carewell’s nursing consultant recommends the following tips:
1) Help your loved one stay hydrated.
One of the easiest ways to prevent heat stroke is to encourage proper hydration. Even so, it’s important to exercise caution if your senior has an underlying health problem.
“Eight glasses of water a day is harmless for those who are otherwise generally healthy, but eight glasses of water for those with reduced renal and/or cardiac function can lead to fluid overload,” Powell said. “Common signs of fluid overload include shortness of breath, swelling of the extremities, and high blood pressure. If you notice these symptoms, have a conversation with the care recipient’s primary care physician to determine a safe amount of fluid intake.”
If your loved one has difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or struggles to stay hydrated, Powell recommends water multipliers “such as liquid IV or fluids that contain electrolytes such as Gatorade.”
2) Tailor your schedule around the weather.
In some parts of the country, it’s nearly impossible to escape the heat, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay inside.
“Plan walks and errands around times when the temperatures are lower, avoiding the outside heat during its peak hours of 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” Powell said.
“It’s also a good idea to plan indoor activities on days when it’s too hot to go outside. Walk around the mall, take a trip to the movie theater, or visit a museum. If your senior enjoys gardening, visit a local home department store and get supplies to start an indoor herb garden.”
If you don’t have access to reliable transportation with air conditioning, you may even want to ask for help. Services like Instacart and GrubHub make it easy to order groceries, meals, or cleaning supplies and have them delivered to your home.
3) When going outside, wear adequate sun protection.
“Always protect your care recipient’s skin with sunscreen, whether the sun is shining or it’s a cloudy day,” Powell said. “Sunscreen should be applied to the face daily. Not only does this prevent premature aging, but it also reduces the risk of skin cancer.”
Sunscreen is only the first line of defense. It’s also a good idea to protect your senior’s vision with a wide-brimmed hat, visor, or sunglasses. In addition, encourage them to wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing like athletic wear or a dress. If possible, select dark colors, like black or navy blue, as they provide better protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays than light colors, like white or beige.
4) Review the medications your care recipient takes.
Many seniors take prescription medication to manage underlying health problems.
“Laxatives, diuretics, oral medications to treat diabetes, Lithium for bipolar disorder, and chemotherapy drugs are just a few of the medications that increase the risk of dehydration,” Powell said. “Those taking these medications should work toward an adequate amount of fluid intake daily.”
If you’re concerned that a specific medication affects your senior’s ability to stay hydrated, make an appointment with their primary care physician. After an exam, blood work, and urinalysis their doctor can adjust the dosage as necessary.
5) Cover the metal on assistive devices.
Many assistive devices, like canes, wheelchairs, and walkers have metal parts that reflect and magnify the sun’s heat. Whenever possible, avoid having your loved one sit in direct sunlight. Try to keep your care recipient shaded by moving their wheelchair under a tree or another protective structure.
6) Pack some cooling accessories.
If you’ll be spending more than 15 minutes outside, pack some cooling accessories. Many newer water bottles have spray nozzles that act like portable misters. There are even portable battery-powered fans that you can bring on walks or errands to increase airflow and combat humidity.
Triple-digit temperatures can make your caregiving responsibilities even more challenging. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to protect your loved one’s health and well-being regardless of what the weather’s doing outside. By modifying your schedule, avoiding direct sunlight, and encouraging proper hydration you can help your senior avoid heat-related illness and thrive.
Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.