June 3, 2002
Elderly at risk for heat-related illnesses
Houston’s sweltering summer months render the elderly particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.
Last summer in Houston and Harris County, senior citizens accounted for 14 of the 20 heat-related deaths reported to the Houston Department of Health and Human Services. A total of 38 heat-related deaths occurred in Harris County in the summer of 2000 and 20 deaths in the summer of 1999.
"The ability to respond to thermal stress, either heat or cold, is impaired in the elderly," said Dr. Luther Harrell, Chief Physician with the department’s Division of Community and Personal Health Services. "It takes older people almost twice the time of younger people to return to core body temperature after exposure to extreme outdoor temperatures."
High body temperatures can also lead to damage to the brain or other vital organs.
Harrell recommends that people visit elderly relatives, friends or neighbors and check them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Checking an elderly person’s condition and determining the temperature inside the home is especially important during the hottest parts of the summer.
Heat exhaustion, usually associated with heavy activity, is the body’s response to an excessive loss of water and salt contained in sweat. Signs include profuse sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, a weak-but-rapid pulse and fainting. The skin may be cool and moist. If heat exhaustion is untreated, it may progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating system fails and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.
Heat stroke symptoms include an extremely high body temperature (above 103°F, orally), red, hot and dry skin (no sweating), rapid and strong pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and unconsciousness.
Others who are particularly vulnerable include infants and children up to four years of age, those who are overweight and people with heart and respiratory problems.
Staying indoors, preferably in an air-conditioned home or building such as a library, shopping mall or multi-service center, is the best protection against the heat. Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the 90s, fans without refrigerated air only spur the movement of hot humid air, which will accelerate body heating and raise internal body temperature. Taking a cool shower or bath or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.
To avoid heat-related illness: