Heat-Related Injuries in Seniors: Causes, Signs, and Prevention

By Michelle Cemental

As enjoyable as the summer can be, it's important to remain vigilant about signs of heat-related injuries in hot weather. Illnesses like heat exhaustion, heat edema, and heat stroke can require hospitalization and lead to serious consequences. In fact, high heat causes more fatalities than any other extreme weather event (including hurricanes and tornadoes) and accounts for 1,500 deaths every year in the United States. 

Unfortunately, the majority of these fatalities occur in adults aged 65 and older, making it crucial for caregivers and family members to recognize the signs of heat-related injury in seniors. Let's take a closer look at why seniors are more affected by the heat, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat stress, and what you can do to keep seniors from overheating and prevent injury and illness.

Why Are Seniors More Affected By the Heat?

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), there are several reasons why adults over the age of 65 are more susceptible to hyperthermia (heat-related illnesses) than other groups.

  • Underlying medical conditions: Certain medical conditions that are more common in seniors can increase sensitivity to heat. For example, high blood pressure and diseases of the lungs, kidney, and heat can contribute to weakness, fever, and poor temperature regulation.
  • Age-related changes: As we age, our circulation can sometimes slow and our sweat glands may not function at peak efficiency. Both of these factors make it more difficult to regulate body temperature through normal processes like sweating.
  • Medications: Taking certain drugs can reduce the amount of sweat produced, which makes it more difficult for the body to regulate temperature effectively.
  • Dehydration: Although the reasons are unclear, many seniors experience a reduction in the feeling of thirst. This can lead to drinking insufficient quantities of water and contribute to dehydration — a major risk factor for heat-related injury and illness. 
  • Lifestyle: Certain lifestyle choices and conditions can contribute to a senior's risk. For example, living in a building with inadequate cooling and ventilation can be a major risk factor. In addition, being overweight, underweight, or drinking excessive alcohol can also increase risks.
Ultimately, it's important to recognize the signs that your loved one requires professional care in order to keep the house cool, drink enough fluids, and stay safe in hot weather.

Signs of Heat-Related Injury & Illness

In the broad sense, hyperthermia refers to the whole range of heat-related illnesses and injury. Let's take a look at some of the most common types of hyperthermia.

1. Heat Syncope

Heat syncope is a spell of dizziness or even fainting that can occur if a senior is doing activities or exercising in hot weather — especially if they are not used to the heat. If you recognize that a loved one is suffering from heat syncope, it's important to provide water, elevate the feet, and immediately get out of the heat and into a cool place. 

2. Heat Edema

In heat edema, fluid pools in the legs and feet and causes swelling. This is because hot weather causes the blood vessels to widen, which allows fluid to build up in the extremities. If a senior has compromised circulation and develops edema, it's important to elevate the legs and feet to decrease swelling. 

3. Sunburn & Heat Rash

When the skin is exposed to excessive sunlight, it's possible to develop sunburn or heat rash. In sunburn, the skin becomes hot, warm, painful to the touch, and may produce blisters. With heat rash, you'll notice small blisters in concentrated areas.

For both conditions, get away from the sun, out of the heat, and remain out of the sun until healed. To prevent further injury from infection, never break blisters from sunburn or heat rash, and wear protective clothing and sunblock before heading outside. 

4. Heat Cramps

With heat cramps, a senior will experience painful muscle spasms — most frequently in the arms, legs, or stomach. This happens when the body loses electrolytes and fluid, often due to strenuous outdoor activity in the heat. People suffering heat cramps often have cool, moist skin. It's important to get out of the heat and replenish fluids by drinking plenty of water or an electrolyte drink.

5. Heat Exhaustion

A more serious condition, heat exhaustion can sometimes develop into heat stroke. If your loved one expresses that they feel dizzy, nauseous, extra thirsty, and weak, it's time to start paying attention. With heat exhaustion, a senior may have a rapid pulse and their skin might feel cold and damp to the touch. It's crucial to rest, escape from the heat, provide plenty of fluids, and seek medical attention if the situation doesn't improve. 

6. Heat Stroke

Though every instance of hyperthermia requires immediate attention, heat stroke is the most serious and potentially fatal heat-related illness. In heat stroke, a senior's body temperature raises to a dangerous level — 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

The skin will feel hot and dry to the touch, they will not be sweating, and the pulse will be weak and erratic. The sufferer might report feeling dizzy and weak, or having a headache. You may notice that they are slurring, having trouble walking, acting confused or agitated, or simply acting strange.

If you suspect heat stroke, it's crucial to act quickly. Call 911 and move the person to a cool, safe place. You can use cool, wet washcloths to help decrease the person's temperature while you wait for help. 

Preventing Heat-Related Injuries

Though it's important to know the signs of hyperthermia, it's better to avoid heat-related injury and illness in the first place. Fortunately, there are some easy steps you can take as a caregiver or family member to protect your loved one in the hot weather.

  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: Drinking plenty of fluids is crucial to staying healthy in hot weather. Stick to liquids like water and vegetable or fruit juice; beverages like caffeine and alcohol are not hydrating. 
  • Limit exercise: In hot weather, it's best to avoid strenuous activity indoors. If a senior would like to exercise in the heat, try to stick to an indoor, air-conditioned track or even walk around a cool building, like a shopping center. 
  • Wear cool clothes: Wearing light, breathable clothing can help a senior avoid overheating. When out in the sun, use sunhats or caps to limit the amount of sun that reaches the skin. 
  • Stay cool at home: As the weather heats up, it's crucial to make sure a senior's living conditions will help them stay cool at home. Do they have air conditioning installed? Fans? Shades to keep the house cool? If the house simply does not stay cool, you might have to seek alternate arrangements.
  • Avoid crowding: On hot days, it's best to avoid public transportation or other crowded public areas.
  • Wear sunscreen: To prevent conditions like sunburn, it's important to regularly apply sunblock to prevent burns.
  • Watch the weather: Stay aware and up-to-date when it comes to weather conditions and your loved one's ability to cope. Have a plan in place in advance of any heat waves, and recognize the signs that your loved one may need extra help. Hydration is important on an everyday basis, but should be increased in hot summer months like July and August — and especially if there is a heat advisory. 

When it comes to preventing heat-related injuries and illnesses, remaining knowledgeable about a senior's special risks for hyperthermia can make all the difference. At Caring Senior Services, it's our goal to provide services and information that make it easier for seniors to stay safe and healthy. Want to learn more about how to promote greater health and happiness for your loved one? Please don't hesitate to get in touch with a Caring team near you today.

Tags: Senior Health