How to Prevent Heat-Related Injuries

Rising temperatures increase the risk for heat stroke and other heat-related injuries. But the warning signs for these conditions often go unnoticed. At particular risk are older adults who are at increased risk of experiencing heat stress and heat-related injuries during the warmest months of the year.

According to Dr. Michael Stern, "As a person ages, the body's response to higher temperature changes. Compared with a younger person, an older adult may not be able to sense elevations in temperature as quickly or be able to cool down as readily, says Dr. Stern, co-director of the Geriatric Emergency Medicine Fellowship at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “In today's society we are also seeing an increased number of seniors doing vigorous exercise routines, which can become bad for their health if they don't slow down for scorching temperatures."

What about the effects of the sun on the skin? The sun can be even more dangerous to older adults because of changes in the skin as one ages. "You can burn much quicker even with short exposure to the sunlight," says Dr. Evelyn Granieri, director of geriatrics at New York-Presbyterian/Allen Hospital.

"Heat-related injuries range from minor issues such as muscle cramps due to loss of water and salt through perspiration, dizziness, clammy skin and rapid heart beat; to heat exhaustion in the form of headaches, nausea and weakness; and finally heat stroke, which can be fatal," says Dr. Granieri. There are also several medical conditions that can place you at higher risk for heat stroke, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

Here are few tips from Drs. Stern and Granieri for a cool and injury-free summer:

Slow down. When temperatures begin to reach extreme highs you should stay in the coolest place available out of the sun or in an air-conditioned room, and reduce or eliminate all strenuous activities.

Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids even if you do not feel thirsty. You should minimize the amount of caffeinated beverages and alcohol that you drink, and grab a water bottle or a sports drink instead. A good test of hydration is to make sure that your urine is always clear in color.

Don't get too much sun. Sunburn makes the job of heat dissipation that much more difficult. Always remember to apply (and reapply!) sunscreen of at least SPF 15 when outdoors for prolonged periods of time in the summer months, even on hazy or cloudy days. It is also important, if you have a loved one or friend who has memory problems, to ensure that he/she is not in the sun for any extended period of time. That person may not recognize or be able to tell you that he/she is uncomfortable.

Dress cool. Lightweight, light-colored, loose clothing reflects heat and sunlight and helps your body maintain normal temperatures.

Anticipate change. Turn air conditioning systems or other ventilators on as soon as you go inside and take off extra layers of clothing when going outside. For seniors having trouble recognizing temperature changes, these automatic actions help maintain a comfortable indoor and outdoor environment.

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