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Many Don't Heed Heat Advisories

As temperatures soar across the U.S., protecting yourself is key, experts say

FRIDAY, July 21, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The suffocating heat wave that has blanketed much of the United States this past week has contributed to at least 10 deaths. But experts say, if people heed heat advisories, the death toll doesn't have to rise.

Unfortunately, a new study from Kent State University suggests that too many people don't listen to experts' advice.

The researchers surveyed 908 seniors aged 65 to 97 about their perception, awareness and response to heat warnings in four cities where heat warning systems are in place: Dayton, Ohio, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Toronto.

The findings, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Biometeorology, revealed that about 90 percent of respondents were aware when a heat advisory was issued, but only half took any precautions.

"The most common reasons people offered for not listening to heat warnings included feeling that the warnings weren't meant for them, but only for old people, even though they all were over 65; that they felt that they're in good shape; or that they make it a matter of pride to survive the heat," said study author Scott Sheridan, an assistant professor of geography at Kent State in Ohio.

Among the potentially dangerous behaviors that surveyed seniors reported was not drinking more fluids, even though they knew they should increase their intake.

"Seniors should make sure to get a minimum two to three glasses of water or clear fluids per day, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, which can increase fluid loss," advised Dr. Sharon Brangman, division chief of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., and a board member of the American Geriatrics Society. Those on fluid restrictions should consult their doctor, she added.

"The most significant problem reported were people that sat inside a closed room with no air conditioning with a fan blowing on them. This increases dehydration, and when the room is hot, actually increases thermal stress," Sheridan explained. "People should never sit directly in front of a fan in hot weather, since it causes sweat to evaporate from skin too quickly, which accelerates dehydration. Also, always open a window for ventilation whenever you're running a fan."

"Seniors, in particular, should take extra care in extreme heat, since aging slows the body's natural thirst- and temperature-control mechanisms. It may take a higher level of dehydration to trigger thirst, which means that someone could be very dehydrated before realizing it," Brangman said. Or they may not feel hot until their body is already overheated.

Extreme heat exposure can also exacerbate certain health conditions, such as congestive heart failure, lung disease and diabetes, Brangman added. And certain drugs, such as antihistamines and diuretics, can exacerbate heat overexposure because they can contribute to faster dehydration and slower cooling.

Although seniors need to take special precautions, heat alerts apply to all ages. So, when temperatures hit 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, Brangman offers this advice:

  • Turn on the air conditioner or go where it's air-conditioned, such as a shopping mall or community center. A fan isn't enough in extreme heat.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, even if you're not thirsty.
  • Take cool showers, baths or sponge baths.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Avoid staying in the sun for long.
  • Reduce your physical activity.

Also, watch for dangerous signs of heat overexposure, such as:

  • Dehydration: Extreme water loss reduces the body's ability to cool down and can lead to weakness, headache, muscle cramps, dizziness, confusion and passing out.
  • Heat cramps: Muscle cramps, usually in the stomach or the legs, are the result of over-exercising in the heat and losing too much water and salt from heavy sweating.
  • Heat exhaustion: Marked by either heavy sweating or no sweating, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, paleness, cold or clammy skin, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting and fainting; body temperature may be normal.
  • Heat stroke: A life-threatening emergency (also known as sun stroke) that involves a body temperature of or above 103 degrees; red, hot and dry skin; a fast pulse; headache, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, confusion, and passing out.

More information

For more information on summer heat safety, visit the U.S. National Weather Service.

SOURCES: Scott Sheridan, Ph.D., assistant professor, geography, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio; Sharon Brangman, M.D., division chief of geriatrics, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, N.Y., and board member, American Geriatrics Society
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