How to Survive a Heatwave

High temperatures can affect you in many ways. The experts tell you how to cope.

By Sherri Lerner

Taking good care of yourself is important all year, but summer's high temperatures and sun exposure carry specific dangers for older adults. Many people have a harder time handling heat as they age, but remain unaware of their increased vulnerability, according to a recent Kent State University study. Don't put yourself at risk.

Alexis Halpern, M.D., assistant director of the geriatric emergency medicine fellowship program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an attending physician of emergency medicine, offers these tips for staying out of danger as the mercury rises.

Keep Your House Cool

You may think that staying inside will help you avoid becoming dehydrated, but if you're sitting in a house without adequate air conditioning, you could be putting yourself at the same risk you'd face outside, if not worse. Getting overheated wherever you are, inside or out, can lead to dehydration. Lower your blinds and keep your home at a comfortable temperature. If you don't have air conditioning, go somewhere that does, such as a mall or a movie theater. And don't let the fear of high energy bills put your health in danger.

Exercise at the Right Times

Unless your doctor has advised otherwise, there's nothing wrong with exercising in the summer. What is wrong is doing it at the hottest time of day. If you're going to walk, for example, do it in the early morning or early evening, when the sun is not at its strongest. Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing, which lets air circulate; materials like polyester trap body heat.

Drink Water Wisely

You might assume that greatly increasing your water intake would be the solution for preventing dehydration, but according to Dr. Halpern, too much water is not good for you, either. It dilutes the sodium in your body, which could lead to low blood pressure. Her advice is to drink a mix of noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic fluids (water included) to keep your electrolyte levels up.

Eat Light

Experts also advise eating lighter meals than usual during a heatwave. The body has to work harder to digest heavier foods, like meat and cheese, generating more body heat. You may be doing this already; many people naturally prefer eating lighter in the summer.

Cover Up

Years of exposure to the sun may make your skin more sensitive than a younger person's, so protecting yourself is more important now than ever. Always use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. (Your sunglasses should also block both kinds of rays.)

When you're in the sun, wear a hat that lets skin breathe. Keep a close eye on any skin lesions you may have (older adults are more likely to get them) and check in with a dermatologist if you notice any changes in moles or markings.

Keep in Touch

It's important to know your body well, so that you are alert to any signs that you need some relief, or even medical attention. Lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, abdominal upset, and weakness are all causes for concern. If you experience any of these symptoms, go to a cool room, put a cold compress on your head, drink fluids and call a friend or family member. If your symptoms are severe, do not hesitate to call 911 or your local emergency number.

In general, keeping in regular touch with a particular friend or relative could be crucial if something does happen. Checking in gives them the security of knowing that you’re okay, and it gives you the security of knowing that someone will be aware if you’re not.

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