Summer fun has its risks, too

Health: Keeping a close eye on the body's response to temperature can be a life-saver.

Life After 50

July 16, 2000|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Hartford Courant

It's the good old summertime -- the season for backyard picnics and front porch visits with family and friends. With all the outdoor fun summer brings, it's easy to forget about sunburn, bug bites, poison ivy, food-borne illnesses and other hazards unique to the warm-weather months.

But many poison-related calls come during these months, and many of them from older adults who have eaten spoiled food, gotten nasty insect stings or inhaled pesticides or pool chemicals.

Hospital emergency rooms see an increase in the number of elderly patients suffering from heat-related illnesses, dehydration, respiratory ailments and congestive heart failure.

Steve Gaylor, executive director of Sunrise Assisted Living in Towson, understands the perils that heat can pose for his residents.

"We always monitor the residents that are out in the sun," he says. "Depending on their age and the rate they're aging, do they recall how long they've been out? Did they put sunscreen on?"

But that doesn't mean they can't have any fun in the sun. Sunrise gave an outdoor crab feast earlier this month. A tent offered relief from the heat.

"Minor mishaps can pose bigger problems for older adults, who often suffer from chronic illnesses or have compromised immune systems," says Dr. Kyle Homes, an emergency room physician at Manchester Memorial Hospital in Connecticut. "When an older adult gets dehydrated, for example, it can be life threatening."

Some simple precautions can help seniors survive the season safely, says Laura Caperino Crean, a registered nurse and certified poison specialist at a poison control center.

For example: Multiple bug bites can be more than just an itchy nuisance -- they can also be dangerous. To keep critters away, avoid wearing fragrances or bright-colored clothing. If you use insect repellents, follow the package directions carefully. Don't spray around food and don't spray directly on your face; spray it on your hands first, then apply. Wash your hands after each use and remember to wash the repellent off at the end of the day.

Gardens that produce hardy, bug-free fruits, vegetables and flowers often require insecticides and pesticides that can cause serious injury if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Be sure to wear goggles or a mask, long pants and long sleeves when spraying or dusting plants and don't work on a windy day. Change your clothes when done and launder separately.

Swimming pools depend on chlorine and other chemicals to keep them crystal-clear and bacteria-free. Be careful opening bags of chlorine because inhaling the powder can irritate the respiratory system and affect breathing.

Old-fashioned picnics can be fun as long as food normally kept in the refrigerator is kept cold. Be sure your cooler is packed with ice, serve the meal in a shaded area, and don't let food sit out too long. If there's any doubt about spoilage, don't taste leftovers -- throw them out.

"Chemical exposure and food-borne illnesses can cause significant symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and excessive sweating that people may not relate to the exposure," says Crean. "If you suspect a poisoning, don't wait to see what happens, and don't hesitate because you think you may be overreacting. Call the poison control center or seek medical help immediately."

(The numbers for the Maryland Poison Control Center are 410-706-7701 and 800-492-2414.)

Homes says heat-related illnesses are another serious summer problem for older adults. Heatstroke or hyperthermia, heat exhaustion and heat stress occur when individuals are exposed to excessive heat for an extended time. Chronic illness such as respiratory ailments and heart disease, as well as certain medications, can increase susceptibility.

"The elderly don't tolerate heat as well as younger people do," says Holmes. "Age affects the body's ability to regulate temperature and older adults also get dehydrated much more quickly."

As the weather warms up, he recommends monitoring your activity level and taking it easy. "If you start experiencing chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness or confusion in any situation, though, seek medical attention immediately."

Tips for beating the heat

* Drink plenty of water.

* Stay indoors in air-conditioning during the hottest hours of the day.

* Avoid enclosed places, such as parked cars or unventilated sheds.

* Always wear sunscreen and a hat when you go out.

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