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).
extreme weather conditions, the healthy human body keeps a steady temperature of
98.6° F (37° C). In hot weather, or during vigorous activity, the body
perspires. As this perspiration evaporates from the skin, the body is cooled. If
challenged by long periods of intense heat, the body may lose its ability to
respond efficiently. When this occurs, a person can experience hyperthermia.
What Can Be Done to Prevent
•Drink plenty of liquids, even if not
•Dress in light-weight, light-colored,
•Avoid the mid-day heat and do not engage
in vigorous activity during the hottest part of the day (noon-4 p.m.).
•Wear a hat or use an umbrella for shade.
•If possible, use air conditioners
liberally or try to visit air-conditioned places such as libraries, shopping
malls, and theaters. For an air conditioner to be beneficial it should be set
below 80° F.
•If not used to the heat, get accustomed
to it slowly by exposing yourself to it briefly at first and increasing the time
little by little.
•Avoid hot, heavy meals. Do a minimum of
cooking and use an oven only when absolutely necessary.
•Ask your physician whether you are at
particular risk because of medication.
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 That May Increase Risk
•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
•The inability to perspire, caused by
medications including diuretics, sedatives and tranquilizers, and certain heart
and blood pressure drugs.
•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
•Drinking alcoholic beverages.
Lifestyle Factors That Can Increase
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 the day.
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 planned.
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 in effect.
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
•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.
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.
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 is normal.
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
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.
Heat stroke 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