Hyperthermia: Stay Healthy in the Heat

Closeup portrait, old gentleman in white shirt having difficulties with extreme heat, high temperature, wiping sweat from face. By Cindy Tucker, RN, Oxford’s Quality and Compliance Coordinator

Anne’s bus was late. Even though it was noon on a very hot summer day, she decided to walk from the grocery store to her home. At 72—healthy and active—Anne thought the heat would be no match for her. Yet after walking just one block, she began to feel dizzy and weak.

Too much heat is not safe for anyone, but it’s even riskier if you are older or have health problems. It is important to get relief from the heat quickly. If not, you might begin to feel confused or faint. Your heart can become so stressed that it even stops beating. This is called Hyperthermia.

Signs and Symptoms of Hyperthermia

Knowing the signs to watch for can save your life, or the life of someone you love. Particularly if you are a caregiver, whether it be of a young child or an aging parent.

Heat Syncope

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, then 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

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 avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Heat Edema

A swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot. Put your legs up to help reduce swelling.

Heat Exhaustion

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

The most serious form of hyperthermia. 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 increased risk.

Signs of heat stroke are:

  • Fainting
  • Change in behavior – confusion, agitation, staggering, grouchiness, or acting strangely
  • Body temperature over 104 degrees
  • Dry, flushed skin and a strong, rapid pulse or a slow, weak pulse
  • Not sweating even if it is hot

Heat Stroke is a medical emergency. If you have heat stroke, seek medical attention immediately.

Protect Children from Heat Illness

Children are vulnerable to the same things that put an adult or elderly patient at risk for dehydration: prolonged exposure to high temperatures, direct sun and high humidity without sufficient rest and fluids. The difference is that a child’s body surface area makes up a much greater proportion of his or her overall weight than an adult’s, which means children face a much greater risk of dehydration and heat-related illness.

Whether you’re caring for yourself, a child, or an older adult, be sure to drink plenty of water, take regular breaks from the heat, and stay on the lookout for signs of hyperthermia.

Excerpts from: National Institute on Aging and WebMD