Tips for Older Adults to Avoid Heat-Related Illness

Hot sun

Our risk of hyperthermia problems increases with age

Summertime, and the living is...hot -- TOO HOT. Alas, we are less able to handle hot days as we age. The wonderful summertime of youth can become a serious problem for a Senior. Heat-related illnesses, known as hyperthermia, can include heat stroke, heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps and heat exhaustion, says the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIH has some advice to help older people avoid these problems. A person's risk for hyperthermia is a combination of the outside temperature along with general health and lifestyle. These health-related factors can increase risk:

  • Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands
  • Heart, lung and kidney diseases, and any illness that causes general weakness or fever
  • High blood pressure or other conditions that require changes in diet. For example, a salt-restricted diet may increase, but salt pills should not be used without consulting a doctor.
  • The inability to perspire, caused by medications such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and certain heart and blood pressure drugs
  • Taking several drugs for various conditions. However, prescribed medication should not be stopped, so discuss possible problems with a physician.
  • Being substantially overweight or underweight
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages
  • Being dehydrated

Lifestyle factors can also increase risk, including:

  • extremely hot living quarters
  • lack of transportation
  • overdressing
  • visiting overcrowded places
  • not understanding how to respond to weather conditions

Older people, particularly those at special risk, should stay indoors on hot and humid days, especially when there is an air pollution alert in effect. People without fans or air conditioners should go to cool places such as shopping malls, movie theaters, libraries, or cooling centers which are provided by government agencies, religious groups, and social service organizations in many communities. Heat stroke is an advanced form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. Someone with a body temperature above 104 degrees is likely suffering from heat stroke and may have symptoms of confusion, combativeness, strong rapid pulse, lack of sweating, dry flushed skin, faintness, staggering, possible delirium, or coma. Seek immediate medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult. If you suspect that someone is suffering from a heat-related illness:

  • Get the person out of the sun and into an air-conditioned or other cool place.
  • Offer fluids such as water, fruit and vegetable juices, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Encourage the individual to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water.
  • Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits, and/or groin, places where blood passes close to the surface and the cold cloths can help cool the blood.
  • Urge the person to lie down and rest, preferably in a cool place.

For a free copy of NIA's Age Page on hyperthermia in English or in Spanish, call 1-800-222-2225 or go to http://www.niapublications.org/agepages/hyperther.asp (or www.niapublications.org/agepages/hyperther-sp.asp for the Spanish-language version). NIA leads the U.S. federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older people. For more information on research and the aging, go to http://www.nia.nih.gov. As the nation’s medical research agency, NIH includes 27 institutes and centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.