Senior Health

7/12/2023 | By Steven Marshall

Summertime heat and humidity are accompanied by the risk of heat-related illnesses, especially for seniors and people with health concerns. Hot temperatures can bring on heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which can be severe and even life threatening. Knowing the common signs and symptoms of these two conditions as well as prevention and treatment can help in keeping seniors safe in summer heat.

Risk factors

Risk factors for heat-related illness include age, medical history, and medications.

  • Age: children under 4 and adults over age 65 are at higher risk, as their bodies adjust to heat more slowly.
  • Individuals with heart, lung, or kidney disease, alcoholism, and diabetes may be at a higher risk due to impaired temperature regulation.
  • Fluid pills and blood pressure medications may lead to dehydration.

Related: Why are seniors at greater risk for heat-related harms?

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion relates to degrees of dehydration. Water and salt levels deplete in the dehydration process. As dehydration progresses, signs and symptoms become evident, and you should seek immediate medical assistance.

Preventing heat exhaustion:

  • Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Use 30 or higher SPF sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Drink extra fluids while you are outside to help prevent dehydration.
man giving woman fluids after she collapsed from heat exhaustion. From Miriam Doerr. Summer heat can cause heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Knowing prevention, signs and treatment can help keep seniors safe in summer heat.

Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Intense thirst
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Cramping in the abdomen or other muscles
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Darkening of the urine

First aid for heat exhaustion:

  • Move to an air-conditioned room.
  • If you must remain outdoors, find a cooler, shaded location.
  • Drink plenty of water or sports drinks with electrolytes.
  • Avoid caffeine or alcohol as these may worsen dehydration.
  • Remove tight or unnecessary clothing.
  • Cool off with fans, wet towels, cool showers, or baths.

If you feel no better in 15 minutes, seek medical attention.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is a more serious medical emergency that can lead to death. Heat stroke can occur as a progression from other heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion; however, it can occur without any previous signs or symptoms. The primary indicator of a heat stroke is a body temperature above 104 degrees F, which may be accompanied by fainting.

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke may include those of heat exhaustion plus:

  • Throbbing headache
  • Lack of sweating
  • Red, hot, dry skin
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness

Any of these signs and symptoms are considered a life-threatening emergency, and you should call 911 immediately.

Preventing heat stroke, in addition to the guidelines above:

  • Monitor urine color. Rest and increase fluid intake if urine becomes darker.
  • Drink fluids, especially during exercise.
  • Weigh yourself before and after exercise, and increase fluids to offset water weight loss from sweating.
  • Take frequent breaks indoors or in the shade and remain hydrated.

First aid for heat stroke:

  • Immediately call 911 and move to a cooler location.
  • Wet the skin and use a fan to aid in cooling.
  • Apply ice packs to armpits, groin, and back (Do not use ice for older patients or young children since they adjust heat slower, and the ice may damage the skin).
  • Place the patient in a shower or tub of cool (not overly cold) water.

Staying safe in the summer heat requires planning. Monitor your local weather for heat advisories, and stay indoors when recommended Plan activities earlier in the day when it is cooler. If your home isn’t air conditioned, go somewhere that is, from indoor malls to government-sponsored cooling centers.

Monitoring for any signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke and addressing them quickly can keep you safe in the summer heat.

Related: More tips for keeping seniors safe in summer heat

Steven Marshall

Dr. Steven Marshall, DNP, MSN, BSN, RN is a freelance health and medical writer with over 35 years of health care experience. He has worked in clinical and leadership roles throughout settings, including critical care, emergency care, air and ground transport, inpatient rehabilitation, oncology, infectious disease, ambulatory care clinics, and infusion therapy. He founded See Doc Nurse Write in 2023 to provide content sharing his clinical knowledge and experience across larger audiences.