Hot weather may be the stuff of children's dreams. But for senior citizens, summer is potentially deadly. And while Utah is not having a heat wave like Chicago's, hot temperatures pose danger for frail elderly folks.
"Senior citizens tend to have more risk factors that make them susceptible to heat," like heart disease and a decreased ability to sweat, said Dr. Ellen Guthrie, a Wasatch Front physician. "They may have heart disease or don't sweat as well. They may take medication that affects how well they cool off or sweat. And seniors don't seem to be as aware of the need to drink lots of fluids."Particularly hard hit by the heat are those who are poor.
In Salt Lake County, Meals on Wheels drivers are watching for signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration, according to outreach caseworker Marvin James.
"They see the people every day. Usually, if there's an emergency, they find a person has fallen. Now, they're going into homes that are really, really heated. People are trying to save by running air conditioners and fans only at certain times during the day or not at all," he said.
Fear for personal safety increases the danger.
"Senior citizens are afraid to open their doors because they don't want anyone to break in on them. So they're staying out of the heat, but their homes are like ovens when you walk in. The majority of the homes (that receive Meals on Wheels) have windows nailed shut."
How hot is dangerous depends on both temperature and humidity, as well as an individual's ability to compensate for loss of body fluids, said Guthrie. Utahns are at less risk because the climate is drier, and it's easier to keep cool.Infants and the elderly both have a hard time, though, because blood doesn't flow to their skin as well as it does in other age groups.
People need to drink at least two quarts of water a day. Those who are exerting themselves may want to try a sports drink, with electrolyte balance. Alcohol and diuretic drinks should be avoided.
Symptoms of too much heat include nausea and vomiting, thirst, muscle cramps and lethargy.
"The big concern is it will progress to heat stroke," Guthrie said. "If you see changes in how someone behaves and thinks, that's a medical emergency. And it can happen as low as 100 degrees."
To help lower body temperature, Guthrie recommends spraying the skin with cool water. Ice packs placed in the arm pits and groin area also drop temperature.
"Get the air moving," she said. "It helps a lot."
Anyone showing a change in mental status must see a doctor immediately. They won't be able to cool down on their own.