Crazy from the heat: Symptoms of heat stroke in elderly people

The symptoms of heat stroke in elderly people are about the same as those someone of any age would experience, but the fact that elderly individuals may (though not necessarily) be feebler and suffer from other conditions related to aging means that they (and their caregivers if they have them), should be extra cautious and reduce potential exposure to extreme heat to the minimum possible. Fortunately, heat stroke doesn’t just strike out of the clear blue sky; in fact, there are several warning signs of heat illness and heat exhaustion that should be heeded in order to avoid heat stroke, which is the worst heat emergency there is.

Heat illness

Early symptoms

Heat exhaustion

Heat stroke

·         Profuse sweating

·         Fatigue

·         Thirst

·         Muscle cramps

·         Headache

·         Dizziness

·         Lightheadedness

·         Weakness

·         Nausea and throwing up

·         Cool, moist skin with goose bumps

·         Dark urine

·         Weak, fast pulse

·         Low blood pressure when standing up

·         Fast and shallow breathing

·         103 F or higher fever

·         Red, hot and dry skin but no sweating

·         Quick, strong pulse

·         Throbbing headache

·         Dizziness

·         Nausea

·         Confusion

·         Irrational behavior

·         Seizures

·         Unconsciousness


What we said above about elderly people having to be more careful is not a careless assumption. Seniors 65 years old and older are indeed more susceptible to heat illness because:

·         They do not adapt as well as younger people to sudden temperature changes.

·         They are more likely to have a chronic disease that changes the body’s normal reaction to heat.

·         They are more likely to be on prescription drugs that hinder the ability of the body to regulate temperature or that impede perspiration.

Perspiration is the body’s own cooling system; however, if the body becomes overheated it will not be able to sweat. As a result, the temperature will rise very high, very quickly; as high as 106 F in 10-15 minutes. In addition to hot weather and arduous activity, causes of heat stroke include:

·         Alcohol use    

·         Dehydration    

·         Heart disease    

·         Humidity    

·         Medications such as beta blockers, diuretics, neuroleptics, phenothiazines, and anticholinergics

·         Prolonged or excessive exercise    

·         Sweat gland problems    

·         Overdressing

The symptoms of heat stroke in elderly people may be relieved by:

·         Taking the person to a shady, cool area and having them lie down while raising their feet about 12 inches.

·         Removing unnecessary clothing.

·         Applying cool, wet clothes or sponges or cool water to the skin, and cold compresses on the neck, groin, and armpits. If possible, use a fan, put the victim in a tub of cool water or in a cool shower, or spray them with a garden hose.

·         Giving the person cool water, sports beverages or salted water (a teaspoon of salt per quart of water) to drink, provided that the person is alert.

·         Gently massaging cramped muscles until they relax.

·         Monitoring the person’s temperature and continuing cooling efforts until temperature is lowered to 101-102 F.

On the other hand, heat stroke can be made worse by:

·         Giving the person aspirin, acetaminophen, or other drugs used to treat fever.

·         Giving the person salt tablets.

·         Giving the person alcohol or caffeine.

·         Rubbing alcohol on the skin.

·         Administering the person anything orally if they are throwing up or unconscious.

Emergency medical care should be sought if following these guidelines fails to improve the person’s condition. Also call 911 if:

·         The person loses consciousness.

·         There is any other change in alertness such as confusion or seizures.

·         There is a fever higher than 102 F.

·         Other symptoms like rapid pulse or rapid breathing appear.

Heat stroke is not small stuff, so you should sweat it. Fortunately a few simple measures can help you avoid potential complications such as brain damage, organ failure, and death during those summer days when you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

·         Wear loose fitting, light colored, lightweight clothing.

·         Rest often.

·         Seek shady, cool places.

·         Drink plenty of cool, non-alcoholic liquids.

·         Avoid exercising or engaging in physical activity.

·         Avoid getting sunburned.

·         Remain indoors (preferably in an air-conditioned room).

·         Let you car cool off before getting in.

If you known an elderly person who is at risk of heat illness and can’t protect themselves, you can help them like so:

·         Visit them at least two times a day and check for symptoms of heat stroke.

·         Advise them to increase their intake of fluid by drinking cool, non-alcoholic beverages, unless their doctor has limited their fluid intake or are on water pills, in which case the doctor should be consulted on how much they can drink.

·         Take them to air-conditioned locations.

Even though exercise has many benefits for seniors, it is best for them to refrain from physical activity on hotter days.