Beating the Heat

How to avoid heat-related illnesses

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as a scorcher. Dozens of states are broiling. This kind of heat is dangerous for everyone, but particularly the very young, the elderly and those with existing health conditions.

Here are some tips on how to avoid heat-related illnesses.

Seniors are especially at risk

As we age, our bodies can't deal with heat as well as it once could. Add on medical conditions and medications, and the risks are even greater for heat-related illnesses known as hypothermia.

According to the National Institute on Aging, here are things that everyone, especially seniors need to be aware during the hot summer months. These health conditions can increase the risk of hypothermia:

  • Pre-existing conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
  • Decreased ability to move around
  • Cognitive problems including dementia
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being dehydrated from not drinking enough fluids - particularly water
  • Changes in skin that affect how small blood vessels and sweat glands function

Medications can add to risk

Certain medications can also increase the risk of heat-related illnesses. These are medicines that can cause dehydration, or affect how your heart, blood vessels or sweat glands respond to the heat. Such medications include those used to treat depression, anxiety, nausea and over-the-counter cold medications.

Ask your doctor if any of your medications affect body temperature.

Lifestyle risks

Lifestyle issues that may increase risk of hypothermia include:

  • Not being able to regulate the interior temperature with fans or air conditioners
  • Lack of transportation to move to a cooler place
  • Overdressing or dressing in cloths that are too tight
  • Generally not understanding how to respond to weather conditions

Cool moves

If you or a loved one doesn't have air conditioning, go somewhere that does, such as:

  • Libraries
  • Shopping malls
  • Movie theaters
  • Adult and child daycare centers
  • Churches
  • Cooling centers provided by government agencies and nonporfit groups such as the Salvation Army

Simple things to do to stay cool

In this dismally hot weather, it's obviously best to stay indoors. Here are other tips:

  • Use a fan if you don't have air conditioning, but fans are effective in 90+ degree temperatures
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day to avoid becoming dehydrated
  • If you're taking water pills or have been told to limit your fluids, ask your doctor how much you should be drinking during the hot weather
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothes
  • Do not drink alcohol or caffeine
  • Take cool baths or showers as needed
  • NEVER leave a child, pet or elderly person in a closed parked vehicle
  • If you have to be outside, try to do so in the morning or evening
  • Protect yourself from the sun with sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher

If you have an elderly friend or family member, be sure to be in touch with them at least a couple of times a day to make sure they're doing okay. If you don't live nearby, make a plan to have someone physically check in on them, if and when necessary.

Heat-related illnesses can strike and be deadly very quickly.

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke occurs when the body can't control its own tempearture. This is a very serious situation that causes the body temperature to reach at least 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Rapid heart beat and pulse
  • Dry flushed skin
  • Lack of sweating
  • Faintness
  • Staggering movements
  • Mental confusion, combativeness or disorientation
  • Coma

Get immediate medical assistance if any person is suffering these symptoms, especially an older adult.

How you can help

If you think someone may be suffering from a heat-related illness, here's how you can help:

  • Move them to a cool, air conditioned place
  • Have them lie down and rest
  • Loosen or remove any tight or heavy clothing
  • Urge them to drink water or juices if they're able to swallow without choking
  • These fluids should NOT include anything with caffeine or alcohol
  • Put cold water, ice packs or cold wet cloths on the skin - bags of frozen vegetables are good for this, if available
  • Seek medical help as soon as possible - call 911

Financial help to pay for cooling

Government programs are available to help eligible seniors pay for cooling and heating costs. This is called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service. You can apply by contacting your local LIHEAP agency. You may also visit

Be prepared

This may well be a record-setting summer in terms of both temperature and the heat index (how hot it feels). Make sure you're prepared to battle the heat by following these tips and using your common sense.

And if you have elderly friends and relatives, please check in on them regularly. In this heat, it could be a matter of life and death.

Review Date: 
July 18, 2011