It’s too bad our bodies don’t come equipped with “idiot lights.” If they did, more people might avoid heatstroke.
When your car overheats, a red light on the dashboard warns you that the engine is getting too hot. If you don’t pull over immediately, you can ruin your engine.
When your body overheats, you could risk brain damage or death. Athletes, firefighters and military personnel are all warned about the early signs of overheating. But older people and those on certain medications may not realize that they are just as vulnerable.
It’s easy to get heat exhaustion and heatstroke confused. Heat exhaustion is a consequence of dehydration and salt depletion. In hot weather when a person is sweating heavily, drinking too little water to replace the loss may make him feel lightheaded, nauseated, weak and anxious. The skin may be clammy and pale, the blood pressure can drop and the person may faint. He should be treated with cooling and rehydration.
Heatstroke is a life-threatening condition that occurs when core body temperature rises too high and the heat cannot be dissipated. Heat stroke may come on suddenly, with headache, disorientation, weakness and loss of consciousness. The temperature is high, and the skin is usually hot, dry and flushed.
Exercising strenuously in the heat can cause trouble. But simply being exposed to an excessively hot environment can bring on heatstroke, too. Heatstroke must be treated as a medical emergency.
Some medicines make people more vulnerable to hyperthermia because they hamper the body’s ability to get rid of heat. Sweating is important for dissipating heat because the evaporation of moisture from the skin leads to cooling.
If you disabled your car’s radiator in the summer, it wouldn’t be long before the engine temperature would zoom into the danger zone. Sweaty skin is your body’s natural radiator. Taking certain antidepressants, antihistamines or drugs for overactive bladder is akin to disconnecting the radiator on a car.
Older drugs for depression, like amitriptyline, desipramine, doxepin or imipramine, can interfere with sweating. So can over-the-counter remedies such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for allergies and insomnia or dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) for motion sickness.
An older person relying on a drug like Tylenol PM, which contains diphenhydramine, or an athlete taking clemastine to ease nasal congestion could end up with heat stroke. Diuretics for high blood pressure get rid of fluid and minerals, so they can put a person at risk of heat exhaustion.
The elderly are especially susceptible to heat problems. Their internal thermostats are not as sensitive as a younger person’s and their ability to regulate temperature is easily compromised by medication.
Someone taking a drug (Detrol or Ditropan) for urinary incontinence or overactive bladder is especially vulnerable. These medicines can cause dry mouth or dry eyes. That is an early warning sign that sweating may also be reduced.
As the temperature rises in coming weeks, find out if your pills are putting you at risk for heat stroke. If so, stay out of the sun and do your best to stay cool.