Being hot for too long can be a problem. It can cause several illnesses, all grouped under the name hyperthermia (hy-per-THER-mee-uh):
Heat syncope is a sudden dizziness that can happen when you are active in hot weather. If you take a heart medication called a beta blocker or are not used to hot weather, you are even more likely to feel faint. Rest in a cool place, put your legs up, and drink water to make the dizzy feeling go away.
Heat cramps are the painful tightening of muscles in your stomach, arms, or legs. Cramps can result from hard work or exercise. Though your body temperature and pulse usually stay normal during heat cramps, your skin may feel moist and cool. Find a way to cool your body down. Rest in the shade or in a cool building. Drink plenty of fluids, but not those with alcohol or caffeine.
Heat edema is a swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot. Put your legs up to help reduce swelling. If that doesn’t work fairly quickly, check with your doctor.
Heat exhaustion is a warning that your body can no longer keep itself cool. You might feel thirsty, dizzy, weak, uncoordinated, and nauseated. You may sweat a lot. Your body temperature may stay normal, but your skin may feel cold and clammy. Some people with heat exhaustion have a rapid pulse. Rest in a cool place and get plenty of fluids. If you don’t feel better soon, get medical care. Be careful—heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
Heat Stroke—A Medical Emergency
If you have heat stroke, you need to get medical help right away. Older people living in homes or apartments without air conditioning or fans are at most risk. People who become dehydrated or those with chronic diseases or alcoholism are also at most risk. Signs of heat stroke are:
Fainting (possibly the first sign) or becoming unconscious
A change in behavior—confusion, agitation, staggering, being grouchy, or acting strangely
Body temperature over 104°F (40°C)
Dry, flushed skin and a strong, rapid pulse or a slow, weak pulse
Not sweating even if it is hot
Who Is at Risk for Hyperthermia?
Each year, most people who die from hyperthermia are over 50 years old. Health problems that put you at greater risk include:
Heart or blood vessel problems
Poorly working sweat glands or changes in your skin caused by normal aging
Heart, lung, or kidney disease, as well as any illness that makes you feel weak all over or results in a fever
Conditions treated by drugs, such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, and some heart and high blood pressure medicines; they may make it harder for your body to cool itself
Taking several prescription drugs; ask your doctor if any of your medications make you more likely to become overheated.
Being very overweight or underweight
Drinking alcoholic beverages
How Can You Lower Risk of Heat-related Illness?
Things you can do to lower the risk of heat-related illness.
Encourage the care receiver to drink plenty of liquids, such as water or fruit or vegetable juices. Stay away from drinks containing alcohol or caffeine. If your doctor has told your care receiver to limit liquids, ask what should do when it is very hot.
If your care receiver lives in a home or apartment without fans or air conditioning, try to keep the house as cool as possible. Limit use of the oven. Keep shades, blinds, or curtains closed during the hottest part of the day. Open windows at night, if it is safe to do so.
If the house is hot, try to help the care receiver spend time during mid-day some place that has air conditioning, such as your home.
If travel is necessary, arrange for a taxi or call for senior transportation. Older adults should not stand outside in the heat waiting for a bus.
Help the older adult dress for the weather. Some people find natural fabrics, such as cotton, to be cooler than synthetic fibers.
Limit exercise and a lot of activities outdoors when it’s hot.
Avoid crowded places when it’s hot outside. Plan trips during non-rush-hour times.
Listen to Weather Reports. If the temperature or humidity is going up or an air pollution alert is in effect, monitor the weather and help your care receiver understand the increased risk for a heat-related illness.
Tips for Coping with Heat Stress
Older people can have a tough time dealing with heat and humidity. The temperature inside or outside does not have to reach 100°F (38°C) to put them at risk for a heat-related illness.
Headache, confusion, dizziness, or nausea could be a sign of a heat-related illness. Be prepared to call a doctor or help the care receiver get to an emergency room, to find out if he or she needs treatment.
To keep heat-related illnesses from becoming a dangerous heat stroke, for you and the person you care for, remember to:
Get out of the sun and into a cool place—air-conditioning is best.
Drink fluids, but avoid alcohol and caffeine. Water and fruit or vegetable juices are good choices.
Shower, bathe, or sponge off with cool water.
Lie down and rest in a cool place.
Visit a doctor or go to an emergency room if you or your care receiver doesn’t cool down quickly.
Watching out for Older Adults “Senior Watch”
During hot weather, make daily visits to care receivers, if possible. I you live in another town, can a neighbor check on them?
Remind the care receiver to drink lots of water or juice, as long as the doctor hasn’t recommended otherwise because of a pre-existing condition. If there is a heat wave, offer to help care receiver go someplace cool.
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For assistance call 2-1-1 anywhere in the US or your local area agency on aging
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging for AAAs across the US.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
National Energy Assistance Referral Hotline (NEAR)
This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.