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Having fun safely in the sun

Remember to be prepared before spending time outside this summer

June 05, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • Seniors can be more susceptible to the heat so it's best to be prepared. If you plan to be in the sun for a long period of time, apply sunscreen, wear clothing light in color and made of breathable material and wear a hats to protect your skin.
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Sandra Cavallo thought her joint pain and fatigue were part of growing older - until she received her doctor's diagnosis.

She had Lyme disease.

An avid gardener, birdwatcher and hiker, Cavallo, 62, said she's always been an outdoors person, especially during the summer months.

But doing what she loves most - being close to nature - probably increased her chances of being infected by a tick, she said.

Now, the Washington County woman takes all the right precautions. She avoids wooded or possible tick-infested areas, wears clothing that covers her arms and legs and diligently inspects her body for any signs of the parasite.

It's one of the trappings of summer, said Mary McPherson, Adult Evaluation and Review Services coordinator with the Washington County Health Department. Everyone wants to enjoy the activities that the season offers. But there are potential hazards.

From Lyme disease to sunburn, people need to take extra care during the summer months, McPherson said.

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"This is particularly true of the older adult, who is at a higher risk, especially during the hot months," she said.

Topping the list of potential summer problems for older adults, she said, are heat-related illnesses or hyperthermia, which includes heat stroke, heat fatigue, heat exhaustion and heat syncope or sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat.

Older adults are particularly affected by these illnesses because the body's ability to adequately respond to summer heat can become less efficient with age, McPherson said.

A person's risk for hyperthermia isn't based solely on the outside temperature but also the general health and lifestyle of the individual, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Factors that might increase risk include age-related changes to the skin, such as poor blood circulation; heart, lung and kidney diseases; high blood pressure or other conditions that require changes in diet; the inability to perspire caused by medications; and being overweight or underweight.

Other factors also can increase risk, including living in extremely hot living quarters, visiting overcrowded places and not understanding the repercussions of hot and humid weather conditions.

For those who don't own a fan or air conditioner, McPherson said, go to a shopping mall, movie theater or library.

If you don't have transportation to leave your home or apartment, open windows for cross ventilation, she said, and take cool sponge baths. She also recommended having a network of friends and relatives who will check on you during hot weather to insure your well-being.

If you suspect someone is suffering from a heat-related illness, McPherson suggested getting the person into a cooler environment and offering fluids such as water.

"But you don't want to consume alcohol or caffeine," she said. "Those only make the situation worse."

Other heat-related problems include heat edema, which happens when the body retains water causing ankles and feet to swell; and heat cramps, a painful tightening of muscles in the stomach area, arms or legs. Take these cramps as a sign that you are too hot and find a way to cool your body down. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids.

Dehydration can become a problem for seniors at any time of the year, but especially during hot days. This can be avoided by drinking plenty of fluids regularly - but, once again, no alcohol or caffeine, McPherson said. Even carbonated sodas aren't recommended.

Hot weather can zap your energy faster than normal, McPherson said, so older adults should take it slow during sweltering temperatures. Limit physical activity and avoid being outdoors during the hottest part of the day. Also, be aware of heat advisories.

"It's very important to know what's coming so you can be prepared," she said.

In addition to heat, the strong rays of the sun can cause skin damage.

"That's why everyone, regardless of age, needs to apply sunscreen every day," McPherson said. "Unfortunately, if you're on a fixed income, you might decide you don't need to spend money on such products. But it's very important to protect yourself from dangerous sunburns."

Summertime means more outdoor parties and picnics, but this increases the opportunity for improperly stored foods to make partygoers ill. Food poisoning is especially dangerous for the elderly, McPherson said. Once again, use common sense. Use ice chests, ice packs and insulated totes to keep foods at the right temperature. Avoid eating anything that has been sitting out for a period of time.

Pool safety also is important, she said. Try to swim with other people. But if you're alone in the water, let someone know that you are there.

Even clothing can have an affect on summer comfort, she said. Wear breathable fabrics, like cotton, that are light in color.

McPherson said there is a never-ending list of precautions older adults should take during the summer.

"If you think about it, you could go on and on," she said. "The bottom line is take care of your body. Don't put yourself in a situation that results in a trip to the hospital."

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