A man shielding himself and a woman from the sun with an umbrella.

As temperatures rise, so do health risks – particularly for seniors.

Fire authorities have issued alerts this week, and the Bureau of Meteorology has developed a Heatwave Service to help people plan for extreme conditions before they arrive.

If you are over 65, you are at greater risk of serious heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which can be fatal.

These illnesses occur when your body can’t cool itself to maintain a healthy temperature.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer says seniors need to stay cool, keep well hydrated, and keep in touch with neighbours, friends and relatives during hot weather.

What to do in hot weather

There are some simple, common-sense steps you can take to stay cool in hot weather, such as:

  • Drink plenty of water (unless your doctor tells you not to)
  • Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks
  • Stay out of the sun, and only go out in the cooler parts of the day. If you do have to go out, protect yourself from the sun with sunscreen, a hat, and lightweight clothes.
  • Don’t overdo it on hot days. Rest often and keep up your energy levels by eating smaller meals more frequently.
  • Put your feet in cool water
  • Keep yourself cool using wet towels
  • Keep air circulating around you with a fan or air conditioner.

Running an air conditioner can be expensive, but hot days can be very dangerous for older people, so it might be worth the expense.

If you don’t have an air conditioner, consider going to the movies, or visiting a shopping centre, an art gallery or library.

If you’re looking after the grandkids or caring for elderly people, never leave them in the car while you run an errand. In summer, the temperature in a parked car can quickly become 20 to 30 degrees hotter than outside. Anyone left inside is at risk of life-threatening heatstroke – that also includes our four-legged friends.

It is illegal in Victoria to leave children unattended in a car.

Symptoms of heat-related illness

Signs you may be suffering from heat-related illness occur along a spectrum from mild to severe, and they can progress quickly.

Some things to look out for include:

  • Hot and dry skin
  • Paleness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle pains and cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Delirium
  • Fainting or coma
  • Worsening of pre-existing medical conditions

Risk factors

There are a number of reasons why seniors are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. For one thing, our ageing bodies don’t cope as well with the heat because our skin is less able to produce sweat.

Older people are also more likely to have chronic health conditions, such as heart disease or kidney disease, and tend to take more medications.

These issues can make it harder for your body to cool itself.

You’re also at greater risk if you live alone, or you have trouble looking after yourself because you can’t move as well as you used to. So keep up to date with weather forecasts and warnings– watch the news daily, listen to the radio or check the Bureau of Meteorology forecast warnings online.

Check for heat warnings on VicEmergency - www.emergency.vic.gov.au or download the VicEmergency app from either Apple App Store or Google Play for your smartphone.

How to prepare for the hot weather

  • Keep an eye on the weather forecasts on the Bureau of Meteorology website. Days over 37 degrees are the most dangerous, but you need to take care on any day over 30 degrees.
  • Subscribe to Health.Vic to receive heat health alerts.
  • Stock up on food, water and medications so you don’t need to go out in the heat.
  • Visit your doctor to see if you need to change your medications. Ask your doctor if there’s anything else you should consider in hot weather. For example, if you’ve got heart disease or kidney disease, your doctor may advise you not to drink more fluids on hot days.
  • Check that your fan or air conditioner works well, and have your air conditioner serviced.
  • Consider making changes to your home, such as installing external blinds or shade cloth to keep the sun out.

In addition, the Chief Health Officer stresses the importance of staying in touch with family and friends. Let someone know how you’re doing. Check in with your friends and neighbours.

What to do if you’re affected by the heat

Heat-related illness can develop rapidly, and become a serious – even fatal – medical issue. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you should seek help.

  • Visit Better Health Channel
  • Call NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24
  • Talk to your doctor, or local healthcare providers, such as your pharmacist
  • In an emergency, call triple zero (000).