Hyperthermia is the name given to a variety of heat-related illnesses that can include heat stroke, heat fatigue, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps and heat exhaustion. Older adults are particularly at risk for developing heat-related illness because the ability to adequately respond to summer heat can become less efficient with age. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has some advice for helping older people avoid heat problems during the summer months.
A person’s risk for hyperthermia is not based only on the outside temperature—it includes the general health and lifestyle of the individual. Health factors that may increase risk include:
- Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands.
- Heart, 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 consulting a doctor.
- The inability to perspire caused by medications including diuretics, sedatives, 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 beverages.
- Being dehydrated.
Lifestyle factors can also increase risk, including extremely hot living quarters, lack of transportation, overdressing, visiting overcrowded places and not understanding weather conditions. Older people, particularly those at special risk, should stay indoors on particularly hot and humid days, especially when there is an air pollution alert in effect. People without fans or air conditioners should go to places such as shopping malls, movie houses and libraries. Friends or relatives might be asked to supply transportation on particularly hot days. Many communities, social service agencies, religious groups and senior citizen centers also provide services such as cooling centers.
Heat stroke is an advanced form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature. As a person’s body temperature rises rapidly, the body loses its ability to sweat and cool itself down. Heat stroke is especially dangerous for older people and requires emergency medical attention. A person with a body temperature above 104 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. A person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult, should seek immediate medical attention.
Here are a few tips on what to do if you suspect 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 and/or neck, places where arterial 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 the NIA’s Age Page on hyperthermia in English or in Spanish, contact the NIA Information Center at +1-800-222-2225 or go to www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/hyperthermia.htm or www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/Spanish/hyperthermia-sp.htm for the Spanish-language version.
The NIA leads the 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 www.nia.nih.gov.
The NIH—the nation’s medical research agency—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 www.nih.gov.