When Heat Hits the City: Safety for Elders and People with Disabilities

Image description: a pair of sunglasses with a green frame. Source: WikiMedia Commons

By Clarence H. Jones

For many Philadelphians, summer means lots of outdoor activities and fun in the sun. But even a few days of extremely hot weather can be dangerous. Senior citizens and the disabled are especially at risk as the temperature goes up. There are a few things you can do to beat the summer heat.

The best thing to do is to spend as much time as possible in a place with air-conditioning. If you don’t have air-conditioning of your own, the Centers for Disease Control recommends going to a shopping mall, a local library, or visiting a community center. Even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler, making you less at risk for heat-related health problems.

If you don’t have an air-conditioner, an electric fan can be useful as well, as long as you open the windows. Using a fan with the windows closed can put you at risk of heat stress, and even heat stroke.

Unfortunately, when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.

The heat also means you should drink plenty of water. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. When you sweat you lose body fluids. Carrying a bottle of water with you in the hot weather can be a good way to stay hydrated. Don’t drink liquids that contain caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar, as these can actually lead to dehydration. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.

If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask your doctor how much you should drink while the weather is hot.

Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours. You can protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (a little shade also helps keep you cooler). Also, wear loose-fitting, light colored cotton clothing. Light colors help reflect some of the sun’s rays, and loose-fitting clothing helps air to circulate. Wear long sleeves when working in the garden. And don’t forget the sunglasses.

Cut down on exercise too when it gets really hot. If you must exercise, drink between two and four glasses of cool, nonalcoholic fluids each hour. A sports beverage can replace the salt and minerals you lose through sweat, but if you are on a low-salt diet, talk to your doctor first before drinking a sports beverage.

When it’s hot, your body tries to cool down by sweating. As the moisture on your skin evaporates it quickly carries heat from the body. But when the temperature is high and the humidity is too, then sweating is not enough to cool down the body. This is when you most run the risk of a heat-related injury. Heat stress and heat stroke are the most common heat-related injuries.

A heat injury is a medical emergency, and the Centers for Disease Control advise that you call 911 if you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or someone else: Hot dry skin where there is no sweating, a high body temperature, a throbbing headache, confusion, convulsions or a loss of consciousness.

If you live alone, are over 60 years of age and do not have air conditioning, you may be at risk for a heat-related injury. Taking a few preventive steps can help reduce your risk.

It’s also important to stay in touch with family members and friends during extreme hot weather. Have a family member, friend, or neighbor or someone you trust make a personal visit to your home during hot weather. They can get the medical attention you may need if you are overcome by the heat. Stay cool, and have a great and safe summer.

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