Hyperthermia: A Hot Weather Hazard for Older People
Warm weather and outdoor activity generally go hand in
hand. However, it is important for older people to take action to avoid the
severe health problems often caused by hot weather. "Hyperthermia
" is the general name given to a
variety of heat-related illnesses. The two most common forms of hyperthermia are
heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Of the two, heat stroke is especially dangerous
and requires immediate medical attention (see Definitions).
Health and Lifestyle Risk Factors
The temperature does not have to hit 100° for a person to be at risk. Both
one's general health and/or lifestyle may increase a person's chance of
suffering a heat-related illness.
Health factors which may increase risk include:
- Poor circulation, inefficient sweat glands, and changes in the skin caused
by the normal aging process.
- Heat, lung, and kidney diseases, as well as any
illness that causes general weakness or fever.
- High blood pressure or other
conditions that require changes in diet. For example, people on salt
restricted diets may increase their risk. However, salt pills should not be
used without first asking a doctor.
- The inability to perspire, caused by medications
including diuretics, sedatives and tranquilizers, and certain heart and blood
- Taking several drugs for various conditions. It is
important, however, to continue to take prescribed medication and discuss
possible problems with a physician.
- Being substantially overweight or underweight.
- Drinking alcoholic beverages.
Lifestyle factors that can increase risk include:
Unbearably hot living quarters. People who live in homes
without fans or air conditioners should take the following steps to reduce heat
discomfort: open windows at night; create cross-ventilation by opening windows
on two sides of the building; cover windows when they are exposed to direct
sunlight; and keep curtains, shades, or blinds drawn during the hottest part of
Lack of transportation. People without fans or air conditioners
often are unable to go to shopping malls, movie houses, and libraries because of
illness and/or the lack of transportation. Friends or relatives might be asked
to supply transportation on particularly hot days. Many communities, area
agencies, religious groups, and senior citizen centers provide such services.
Overdressing. Because they may not feel the heat, older people
may not dress appropriately in hot weather. Perhaps a friend or family member
can help to select proper clothing. Natural fabrics such as cotton are best.
Visiting overcrowded places. Trips should be scheduled during
non-rush hour times and participation in special events should be carefully
Not understanding weather conditions. Older people,
particularly those at special risk (see health factors), should stay indoors on
especially hot and humid days, particularly when there is an air pollution alert
How is hyperthermia treated?
If the victim is exhibiting signs of heat stroke, seek emergency assistance
immediately. Without medical attention heat stroke is frequently deadly,
especially for older people.
Heat Exhaustion may be treated in several ways
- Get the victim out of the sun and into a cool place -
preferably one that is air-conditioned.
- Offer fluids but avoid alcohol and caffeine. Water
and fruit and vegetable juices are best.
- Encourage the individual to shower or bathe, or
sponge off with cool water.
- Urge the person to lie down and rest, preferably in a cool place.
How is Hyperthermia Detected?
A person with symptoms including headache, nausea, and fatigue after exposure
to heat probably has some measure of a heat-related illness. It is important to
recognize the difference between the very serious condition known as heat stroke
and other heat-related illnesses. Persons experiencing any of these symptoms
should consult a doctor.
Last Editorial Review: 6/11/2003
Heat Stress occurs when a strain is placed on the body as a
result of hot weather.
Heat fatigue is a feeling of weakness brought on by high
outdoor temperature. Symptoms include cool, moist skin and a weakened pulse. The
person may feel faint.
Heat syncope is sudden dizziness experienced after exercising
in the heat. The skin appears pale and sweaty but is generally moist and cool.
The pulse may be weakened, and the heart rate is usually rapid. Body temperature
Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms in the abdomen, arms, or
legs following strenuous activity. The skin is usually moist and cool and the
pulse is normal or slightly raised. Body temperature is mostly normal. Heat
cramps often are caused by a lack of salt in the body, but salt replacement
should not be considered without advice from a physician.
Heat exhaustion is a warning that the body is getting too hot.
The person may be thirsty, giddy, weak, uncoordinated, nauseous, and sweating
profusely. The body temperature is usually normal and the pulse is normal or
raised. The skin is cold and clammy. Although heat exhaustion often is caused by
the body's loss of water and salt, salt supplements should only be taken with
advice from a doctor.
can be LIFE-THREATENING! Victims of heat stroke
almost always die so immediate medical attention is essential when problems
first begin. A person with heat stroke has a body temperature above 104° F.
Other symptoms may include confusion, combativeness, bizarre behavior,
faintness, staggering, strong rapid pulse, dry flushed skin, lack of sweating,
possible delirium or coma.
Heat-related illnesses can become serious if preventative steps are not taken.
It is important to realize that older people are at particular risk of
hyperthermia. Many people die of heat stroke each year; most are over 50 years
of age. With good, sound judgment and knowledge of preventive measures the
summer can remain safe and enjoyable for everyone.
For related information, please visit the First Aid and Hyperthermia Centers.
Portions of the above information has been provided with the kind permission
of the National Institute on Aging (www.nia.nih.gov)