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Thursday, September 12, 2024

Avoiding Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion

“HEAT WAVE! Burning in my heart,” sings Martha and the Vandellas. That’s certainly what everyone is calling these past few weeks in Chicago with temperatures close to triple digits and the tropical-level humidity raising the heat index drastically. There’s no mistaking if it is spring or summer anymore, summer has arrived with a vengeance and seems to be making up for lost time. We are all doing our best to keep cool by finding a parking spot under a tree or eating inside a restaurant as opposed to on the patio.

What most of us are not aware of, is that summer heat claims more than 1,000 lives each year in the United States; more than the icy winters or the severe storms. Over 40% of heat-related deaths each year occur with people over 65 years of age. This is due mainly to the fact that as you age your body holds less water, from 80% in early adulthood to 60% as a senior. The brain also can’t sense temperature change as easily, resulting in the inability to recognize thirst, leading to dehydration. What’s worse, dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, seizures and death. Besides the stifling heat, a contributing factor could be the medicines many older adults take. Diuretics for high blood pressure can increase urination and some medications for Parkinson’s disease, insomnia, prostate conditions and even Benadryl can obstruct sweating and raise the body temperature. The tipping point can easily be reached if diarrhea and vomiting enter the picture. Significant amounts of water can be lost and are often hard to replace if one is feeling too nauseated to tolerate liquids.

So just how do we survive this heat wave and avoid dehydration? Furthermore, how do we know if we’ve become dehydrated and how do we go about treating it?

Preventing Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion

  • Thirst is a sign of dehydration, so be sure to drink fluids before you feel thirsty
  • Drink fluids on a schedule — every 30 minutes or every hour
  • The Institute of Medicine advises adults drink 2-3 liters of water/beverages daily
  • Before, during and after physical activity — drink water, juice or sports drinks
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea or soda as well as    alcohol — they are diuretics and contribute to the loss of fluid in the body
  • Schedule activities in the early morning or evening — not in the heat of the day
  • When outside, stay in shaded areas if possible
  • Stay in air conditioned environments when possible like homes, cars, buildings, or cooling centers
  • Wear hats, lightweight, light-colored and loose fitting clothes

Recognize the Symptoms of Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion

  • Flushed skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive sweating
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased breathing and pulse rate
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Dark Urine
  • Heat rash — when sweat is trapped inside the skin resulting in red bumps and feelings of a mild sunburn
  • Muscle cramps or spasms
  • Sweating may stop eventually causing heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Treating Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion

  • Drink frequent small amounts of clear fluids such as water, clear broths, popsicles, Pedialyte, Gatorade, PowerAde, Jell-O and/or natural juices
  • Move to an air conditioned environment to help cool the body
  • Remove clothes for better air circulation to the body
  • Mist the skin with cool water to stimulate evaporation and cool the body
  • Place ice packs under the armpits and on the back of neck to speed cooling
  • Intravenous fluids may be required if unable to drink fluids
  • Control diarrhea with Loperamide (Imodium)
  • Control vomiting by altering diet to clear fluids and something bland like crackers and applesauce
  • Don’t hesitate to call 911 if symptoms do not improve — heat stroke can cause serious organ damage and even death

More than 600 people died in their homes from heat exposure in the Chicago heat wave of 1995. Chicago officials are urging residents to stay in an air-conditioned home, the library, theater or mall. As part of the Keep Cool Illinois campaign, the Governor has made over 120 state facilities available as cooling centers to the public open 8:30am – 5:00pm Monday through Friday. A full list of the centers can be viewed at or visit for more tips on how to beat the heat.

Carrie Robertson
Research & Community Education

Chicago Skilled Nursing
Chicago Senior Living

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