Older generations need to know the dangers of heatstroke, as various parts of Australia are predicted to have rising day and night temperatures this summer.

Dr Ryan Harvey from House Call Doctor says, “those over 65 years in age are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses”.

Heatstroke occurs from the progression of heat stress, when the body can’t cool itself and maintain a healthy temperature.

It is the most severe heat-related illness, which claims the lives of 500 Australians each year.

As the body ages, it becomes less efficient at regulating temperature.

“Our body relies on sweating to keep itself cool. But seniors over 65 can’t sweat as much as younger adults”, says Dr Harvey.

“They also store body fat differently, which impacts heat-regulation on the inside.”

What causes it?

Heat-related illnesses can result from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, in combination with dehydration, lack of airflow, or hot and crowded conditions. Older generations in particular can be susceptible to heatstroke from their own conditions:

  • Self-care problems– some older people are frail or have reduced mobility or mental illness. These factors make it difficult for the person to take adequate care in hot weather.
  • Living alone– there is no one to take care of the person if the person ignores symptoms.
  • Physical changes– the ageing body doesn’t cope with sudden stresses as quickly as a younger body. For example, on hot days, elderly skin is not able to produce sweat and cool the body as efficiently as younger skin.
  • Chronic medical problems– older people are more likely to have chronic medical problems. Certain conditions make the body more vulnerable to heat stress.
  • Medications– older people with chronic medical problems usually take medications on a regular basis. Some medications can hinder the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Discuss this with your regular GP.
  • Kidney conditions– if you take medications for kidney problems, you need to talk to your doctor before you increase the amount of fluid you drink.

What are the early signs before heatstroke happens?

The early signs of a heat-related illness can be:

  • Excessive sweating,
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Heat rash
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle Cramps

When does it become heatstroke?

“When the core body temperature is greater than 40 degrees Celsius, the internal body starts to shut down as a result of heatstroke”, says Dr Harvey.

A person may experience nausea, vomiting and fainting if heat exhaustion becomes heatstroke.

If left untreated, most people will have profound central nervous system changes as such as delirium, coma and seizures. The worst case scenario of a person with heatstroke is loss of consciousness, coma and even death.

How to Treat Heatstroke?

Dr Harvey advises, “If someone is having heatstroke, here are the steps you must follow”.

  • Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
  • Get the person to a cool, shady area and lay them down while you’re waiting for emergency medical help.
  • Remove clothing and wet their skin with water, fanning continuously.
  • Do not give the person fluids to drink.
  • Position an unconscious person on their side and clear their airway.
  • If medical attention is delayed, seek further instructions from ambulance or hospital emergency staff

How to Prevent Heatstroke Yourself?

It’s important to be sensible in hot weather, for example, stay indoors, avoid strenuous activity, wear lightweight clothing, and drink cool water regularly throughout the day.

Dr Harvey recommends these simple measures that can reduce your risk of heat stress:

  • Pay attention to weather reports– temperatures above 37 °C are particularly dangerous. “Act to prevent heat stress on days when the temperature is predicted to rise above 30 °C”, says Dr Harvey. Take note of humidity levels too, because sweating is not as effective at cooling you down when the weather is very humid.
  • Review medications with your doctor– if you take medications, ask your doctor if you are at increased risk of heat stress in hot weather. Dr Harvey says, “Your doctor may advise that you avoid certain medications or adjust the dosage during the summer months”.
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol– caffeinated and alcoholic drinks have a mild diuretic action. Limit tea, coffee and alcohol in hot weather.
  • Take note of the colour of your urine– brown or dark yellow urine suggests dehydration.
  • Stay cool– draw your blinds and curtains, and turn on your air conditioner and set it to ‘cool’. “If you do not have an air conditioner, try cool showers or use wet towels and sit in front of an electric fan”, says Dr Harvey.

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