Prevent Heat Injuries in the Elderly

Older female tennis player putting bottle of water to her forehead

Physical exertion on a hot day can cause heat injuries.

Summer is coming to New Jersey, and the weather is already heating up. Now’s a good time to talk about preventing various heat injuries. Seniors are particularly sensitive to heat, and they may not realize themselves when they’re overdoing it in the sun. Heatstroke is a life-threatening medical emergency, but there are many other serious heat injuries that can lead to heatstroke if they’re not treated right away. Here’s what you need to know about identifying heat injuries in the elderly, treating it, and preventing it in the first place:

What are Heat Injuries?

Our bodies have an incredible ability to adapt to extreme temperatures. Sweating is a perfect example; its main function is to cool us off when it’s very hot. However, when we’re out in hot weather for a long time, our bodies begin to overheat. Dehydration sets in, body temperature soars, and blood flow increases—straining the heart. This puts us at risk for developing heat injuries that range from minor and treatable to potentially life-threatening.

Here are the most common heat injuries, in order of severity:

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are brief, painful muscle spasms or cramps. It usually presents during exercise or other physical exertion in the heat. While we don’t know the exact cause of heat cramps, they’re likely related to electrolyte imbalances that come from mild dehydration. You can usually stop the cramps by resting, moving to a cool or shaded area, and drinking cool water. If the cramps don’t go away, or if other more serious symptoms start, seek medical attention right away.

Heat Syncope

Syncope, or fainting, is a mild form of heat injury. It happens when the body tries to cool itself by dilating the blood vessels significantly. This reduces blood flow to the brain, causing you to faint or feel dizzy. Other symptoms include a higher pulse, headache, nausea and vomiting. If you feel faint after a prolonged stay in the sun, make sure to drink fluids and move to shady or indoor area to rest.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is when the body begins to overheat and can’t keep itself cool anymore. Dehydration is usually a key factor in heat exhaustion. The heart has to work extra hard to keep your internal thermostat regulated when you’re dehydrated. That cardiovascular strain can cause symptoms such as:

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps
  • Heavy sweating
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak and/or rapid pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache

Symptoms can come on over a period of time or they may develop suddenly. If you feel any of these signs, or if you notice them in your companion, move to a cooler place right away. Drink water or a sports drink, and rest. If your condition worsens or doesn’t improve after about an hour, call your doctor immediately.


Heatstroke develops when the body’s core temperature climbs to 104°F or higher. This is a medical emergency that can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys, or muscles if you delay treatment. You may not notice signs of heatstroke until it’s already advanced. The symptoms are similar to heat exhaustion, so if you’re ever unsure how bad your overheating is, don’t wait. Get medical attention immediately.

Here are some signs and symptoms of heatstroke:

  • High fever of 104°F or higher
  • Flushed skin
  • Confusion, agitation, irritability, delirium
  • Slurred speech
  • Lethargy
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Alteration in sweating
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Racing heart rate
  • Seizures
  • Coma

If you’re with someone who is showing signs of heatstroke, call 911 right away. Remove any excess layers from the person, and drench their skin with cool water. If they’re able to drink, offer them cool liquids until help arrives.

Heat Injuries in the Elderly

Extreme heat tends to affect seniors more than younger people. This is mainly because we become less efficient at regulating our body temperatures and conserving water as we age. Plus, seniors often don’t drink enough because they don’t feel thirst as strongly. Certain medications that seniors take cause frequent urination, further raising their risk of dehydration.

It’s important to reduce the risk of dehydration—and subsequent heat injuries—in the elderly. Here are some things to keep in mind when you go out on a hot day with your elderly loved one:

  • Drink regularly, even when you don’t feel thirsty. Many seniors don’t want to drink plain water, but the good news is that they don’t have to. Fruit juices or sport drinks can help you keep your electrolytes in balance as you sweat. Any liquid is fine for hydration, really, except alcohol. You may want to avoid caffeinated beverages as well, but it’s not a must. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it causes you to lose liquid, but there is evidence that regular caffeine-drinkers see only minimal diuretic effects.
  • Stay indoors during the hottest parts of the day. Only go out in the heat if you absolutely have to. New Jersey summers are brutally humid, and humidity can increase the likelihood of heatstroke. If you must be outside, try to stay in shaded areas.
  • Dress appropriately. If you must go outside, wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Wear adequate sunscreen. While this won’t protect you from heat injuries, it’s still important to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. Age thins your skin, so it’s more sensitive to dangerous sun rays than ever.

With advanced planning and common sense, we can enjoy the 2018 summer safely and happily!

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