Hot weather can be silent killer to the sick, elderly

WASHINGTON — Local emergency rooms are seeing an uptick in patients with heat-related health problems.

Most of them are workers or athletes who spend too much time outside in the high temperatures and need to replace fluids and cool down. What really concerns the medical community however are the patients they are not seeing during a heat wave but who may be in real danger in the days to come.

“The real target population is people who are older and sicker and have multiple medical problems, and are on a variety of medications,” says Dr. Robert Shesser, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Shesser says if they are living in a home without adequate air conditioning they could be in real trouble during a heat wave. Certain medications can make it difficult for the body to cope with the heat. And days of extreme temperatures can exacerbate existing conditions.

Shesser says it’s not unusual to see a spike in deaths a week to ten days following the onset of a heat wave. Often, it is that existing condition in an elderly patient that ends up on the death certificate, even though it was the extreme heat that turned that condition deadly.

Also at extreme risk during a heat wave are the mentally ill. Shesser says they often don’t respond to cues from their own body, and don’t realize that they are dangerously hot and/or dehydrated.

That combination of being dehydrated and overheated usually results in symptoms like cramps and feeling a little woozy or run down. But for these vulnerable groups, these symptoms can progress to altered levels of consciousness.

Shesser says a big sign of trouble is when “people are not reacting appropriately to conversation, to demands and cues.” He says that happens when the brain is not working correctly due to heat-related illness.

He says it is a public health issue, and urges residents to check on elderly neighbors and relatives who live alone. It’s a good idea any time of the year, but especially when the weather can be a silent killer.

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