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).
What causes hyperthermia?
Regardless of 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
What can be done to prevent hyperthermia?
- Drink plenty of
liquids, even if not thirsty.
- Dress in light-weight,
light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
- 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
- Ask your physician
whether you are at particular risk because of medication.
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
Health factors which
may increase risk include:
- Poor circulation,
inefficient sweat glands, and changes in the skin caused by the normal
- Heat, lung, and
kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes general weakness
- 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 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 underweight.
- Drinking alcoholic
that can increase risk include:
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.
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.
places. Trips should be scheduled during non-rush hour times and participation
in special events should be carefully planned.
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 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
- 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.
occurs when a strain is placed on the body as a result of hot weather.
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.
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
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.
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
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.