"Too much heat is not safe for anyone and is even riskier if a person is older or has health problems," explained Family Practice physician Karl Getzinger, M.D.
"The elderly suffer from heat related illnesses in disproportionately high numbers. Their sense of hot or cold can change with age, along with their ability to sweat and cool the body through evaporation.
"The body is always working to keep a balance between how much heat it makes and how much it loses. People suffer heat-related illness when the body's temperature control system is overloaded. The body normally cools itself by sweating. However, under some conditions, a person's body temperature rises very rapidly and may damage the brain or other vital organs.
"Several factors affect the body's ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, which prevents the body from releasing heat as quickly. Other conditions that can limit the ability to regulate body temperature include being very young or old, obesity, fever, dehydration, poor circulation, sunburn, prescription drug use or alcohol use."
Being hot for too long can cause many heat-related illnesses, all grouped under the name hyperthermia. "Heat edema is a swelling in the ankles and feet when a person gets hot," remarked Dr. Getzinger. "Heat cramps are the painful tightening of muscles in the stomach area, arms, or legs. While the body's temperature and pulse usually remain normal during heat cramps, the skin may feel moist and cool.
"Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. It can occur at any age, but is most common in young children. Heat rash looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It is most likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases."
Heat syncope is a sudden dizziness that usually occurs while performing an activity in the heat. "If you take a form of heart medication known as a beta blocker or are not used to being outdoors in hot weather, you are even more likely to feel faint when in the heat," Dr. Getzinger advised.
Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness. It can develop over several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids, and is a warning that the body can no longer keep itself cool. Those most prone to heat exhaustion are elderly people, those with high blood pressure and those working or exercising in a high heat environment.
"With heat exhaustion, the skin may be cool and moist, while a person's pulse rate will be fast and weak," Dr. Getzinger said. "Typically, the individual may be breathing fast and shallow. He or she may also experience heavy sweating, paleness, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or fainting. If heat exhaustion is suspected, have the person drink cool, nonalcoholic beverages; cool off with a shower; dress as light as possible; and rest."
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body's temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. "When the body becomes unable to control its own temperature, it may rise to 106 degrees F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes," Dr. Getzinger cautioned. "Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency medical treatment is not provided.
"Signs of heat stroke can include fainting; a body temperature over 104 degrees F; a change in behavior such as confusion, being grouchy, acting strangely or staggering; dry flushed skin; a strong rapid pulse or a slow weak pulse; not sweating despite the heat; or being in a coma."
If signs of heat stroke are present, try to get the person cooled off and seek immediate medical treatment by a physician. "Many people die of heat stroke each year," stated Dr. Getzinger. "Older people living in homes or apartments without air conditioning or good airflow are at most risk. So are people who don't drink enough fluids or those with certain chronic diseases or alcoholism."
Lower the Risk
During hot weather, people need to drink more liquid than their thirst indicates. "Increase your fluid intake, regardless of your activity level during extremely warm conditions," Dr. Getzinger added. "This is especially true during heavy exercise in a hot environment, when a person should drink 16-32 ounces of cool fluids each hour. Avoid drinks containing caffeine or alcohol, as they make a person lose more fluids. It takes an average of 64 to 80 ounces to replace the water the body loses in 24 hours."
If you live in a home or apartment without air conditioning, try to create cross-ventilation by opening windows on two sides of the building. If possible, spend at least two hours a day in an air-conditioned place, such as a shopping mall, the movies, the library, a senior center, or a friend's house, especially during the hottest periods of the day.
"Lastly, don't try to exercise or do a lot of activities when it is hot," Dr. Getzinger concluded. "If you are not accustomed to working or exercising in a hot environment, start slowly and pick up the pace gradually. If exertion in the heat makes your heart pound and leaves you gasping for breath, stop the activity at once. Get into a cool area and rest, especially if you become lightheaded, confused, weak, or faint."
Karl Getzinger, M.D., is a board certified Family Practice physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's medical staff. Appointments with Dr. Getzinger can be scheduled by calling his office at 166 Vine St. in Salem 330-337-3500; or 356 E. Lincoln Way in Lisbon, 330-424-1404.