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Recognizing and Preventing Heat-related Illness

It’s mid-July in Alabama, and it’s hotter than blue blazes. Even seasoned southerners struggle with the heat, and it can be especially dangerous for our aging population. Being too hot for too long can cause serious illness and potentially be fatal. It is important to take precaution against becoming overheated and recognize the signs if overheating does occur.

Heat illnesses are grouped together under the name hyperthermia. The following conditions are caused from being too hot:

  • 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.

Older adults are more likely to suffer from heat stress for a few reasons. One reason is that older adults do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. They are also more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat. Medications can be a factor, as well, because older people are more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat. offers the following tips for preventing heat-related illness:

  • Wear cool clothing: See that the person is dressed in light-weight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, preferably of natural fabrics like cotton. Use hats and umbrellas outside. If the air conditioning appears to bother the person, offer layers, such as a long-sleeved shirt or sweater over the shoulders, or a light cloth over the ankles.

  • Use air conditioning: Keep the air conditioning on below 80 degrees F. If you don’t have air conditioning, invest in a room air conditioner or use room fans to circulate inside air. If possible, drive the person a short distance to an air-conditioned place where they can sit, such as a library, mall, restaurant or theater. But avoid overcrowded places and rush hours.

  • Cover windows: During the day, pull the curtains on all windows that are in direct sunlight. Open windows at night and use fans or cross-ventilation to circulate cooler air. (An open, uncovered window during the day will simply make the inside temperature the same as outside.)

  • Avoid direct sun: Stay indoors during the hottest hours, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Drive as close to the door of destinations as possible, but don't leave the person in the car where temperatures can soar quickly. If the person wants to be outside, make sure it’s during cooler hours and that he or she is in the shade, on a covered porch, or under an umbrella. Also check the news for information about temperatures, humidity levels and air pollution alerts.

  • Eliminate or limit physical activity: If the person’s physician approves light exercise such as walking and movement exercises, limit them to short periods during cool hours. Eliminate entirely on very hot days.

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Give the person plenty of water and fruit or vegetable juice even if they say they’re not thirsty. No alcohol, coffee or tea. Seek medical help if you suspect dehydration.

  • Light meals: Avoid hot, heavy meals and don’t use the oven.

  • Monitor medications: Find out if the person’s medications increase his or her risk for heat stress. Be sure to ask a physician about all the medications being taken, including off-the-shelf items.

  • Take cool showers: Help the person take a cooling shower or bath. Lay a cool, moistened towel over the forehead or back of the neck and replace often.

  • Check in often: If the person lives alone, check in daily or ask a neighbor to look in several times a day. If the person lacks transportation, make sure someone takes him or her to and from appointments, grocery stores, etc.

  • Inform others: If the person is in a nursing home or other facility, make sure the facility has a plan for dealing with rising temperatures and is following the tips mentioned above. Visit as often as possible.

  • Be alert: Remember that a cognitively-impaired person may not be able to tell you when he or she is feeling hot or ill. Also, older people tend to feel colder than younger people so they may not sense the danger of hotter weather.

For caregivers and guardians of elderly people, be sure to keep a close eye on those in your care by visiting them at least twice a day, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they drinking enough water?

  • Do they have access to air conditioning?

  • Do they know how to keep cool?

  • Do they show any signs of heat stress?

If someone in your care shows signs of heat stress or illness, call 911 or seek medical attention immediately.


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