How to stay cool and safe when the sun’s baking down


Diane's mother

My mother on a warm summer day

When the rest of us are sweating because of the heat, my 88-year old mother may insist on wearing a sweater. As far back as I remember, she’s often chilly when others are not. Thankfully, she’s not one for lingering too long under a hot sun because elderly people are especially susceptible to heat-related illnesses. I always get confused about the difference between two heat-related illnesses — heat stroke and heat exhaustion — and decided that since we’re due for a stretch of hot weather here in New England, a refresher course might be a good idea. I can’t be the only one who has trouble keeping them straight. Here’s a rundown of heat illnesses, their symptoms and what to do, courtesy of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC):


  • hot, dry, red skin (no sweating)
  • rapid pulse
  • high body temperature (≥ 105 F)
  • headache
  • loss of alertness
  • confusion
  • rapid and shallow breathing
  • unconsciousness or coma

What to do: Call 911 immediately. Cool the person rapidly by moving them out of the sun and into a shady or cooler area; applying cool water or ice to the head, neck, armpits and groin area; fanning; and loosening their clothing


  • heavy sweating
  • fainting
  • vomiting
  • cold, pale and clammy skin
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • nausea
  • weakness

What to do: Move the person to a cool place, have them drink fluids and rest, loosen their clothes, and cool them off with water or wet cloths. Heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke. If symptoms worsen or do not improve, get medical help.


  • Muscle cramps in the abdominal area or arms and legs that are often accompanied by heavy sweating and mild nausea.

What to do: Move the person to a cool place to rest and apply firm pressure to the cramping muscle. Gently stretch the cramped muscle, hold it for 20 seconds and then gently massage it. Have the person drink some cool beverages, such as water or a sports drink. Get medical help if there is no improvement or if the person has underlying medical problems.


  • Dehydration is caused by excessive loss of water and salts from the body due to illness or from prolonged exposure to heat.
  • Severe dehydration can easily become a life-threatening condition for infants and the elderly.
  • Signs of dehydration include thirst, dry skin, fatigue, light-headedness, confusion, dry mouth, increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, and less frequent urination.

What to do: Move the person to a cool and dry place. Have the person lie down and rest, and drink water, juice, or sports drinks. Monitor the person – especially children and the elderly.


  • Skin that is red, painful and warm after sun exposure.

What to do: Get medical help if the sunburn affects an infant or if there is fever, fluid-filled blisters or severe pain. Otherwise, apply cold compresses or immerse the burned skin in cool water, apply moisturizing lotion to the burn.


  • A rash that looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters, usually in the neck and upper chest or in body creases. Most common in young children.

What to do: Move the person to a cooler place and keep the affected area dry. Use talcum powder to increase comfort.


  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing
  • Avoid dark-colored clothing, because dark colors absorb the heat
  • Drink lots of fluids — non-alcoholic
  • Check your medications — some make you more sensitive to sun and heat
  • Never leave a child, an elderly person, a pet, or any living creature in a parked car in hot weather. Ever.
  • Avoid strenuous activity. If you can’t, try to do it in early morning or evening. Take breaks and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Read and remember the signs I listed at the beginning of this post.

Our summers are short, so enjoy the sun and hot weather while they’re here, but be careful. (And remember to check on your mother.)

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now, she's a baby boomer not interested in retiring. She writes the Catching Health blog and is a regular guest on the WCSH6/WLBZ2 Morning Report. She's also a college art student at USM. You can read about that adventure on Diane's other blog She says it's good (and healthy) to be busy!