Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

It is hot outside. In many parts of the country, the combination of heat and humidity can be debilitating to even the most robust and healthy individuals. However, the elderly can be especially vulnerable to the effects of heat.

The human body cools itself most efficiently by sweating, and then having the sweat evaporate. But sometimes this normal bodily function can experience problems — either due to the body’s inability to maintain temperature control, or the external environment being excessively hot. Or, a combination of both.

Heat exhaustion may occur when a person exercises or works in a hot environment. For example, an elder who works in their backyard garden may be exposed to the combination of heat and physical exertion. If their sweating cannot dissipate the heat generated within the body, heat-related illness can occur. Heat exhaustion is part of a progression of symptoms which may be preceded by a prickly heat rash on the skin, or muscular heat cramps. The body temperature is too hot, and the cooling system can’t work fast enough. Sweating and perspiration is unable to meet the cooling demands of the individual. (Often, “dehydration” occurs because the person hasn’t replaced bodily fluids – water – lost by sweating.)

Externally, an extreme “heat index” with high relative humidity and/or daily temperature can be an important environmental factor in developing heat exhaustion. When the humidity is too high, the sweat on the skin cannot evaporate into the surrounding air – and the body temperature fails to cool.

Family care staff need to be alert for any/all symptoms of heat exhaustion, which can include profuse sweating, weakness, or light-headedness. Further, a headache, feeling nauseated, and vomiting are symptoms of a problem. The affected individual may have a low grade fever.

Elderly at Risk

The elderly may be at risk because of underlying medical conditions that limit the body’s normal temperature controls. Poor circulation caused by a weakened heart may slow perspiration control. Obesity can overwork the body. Certain medications such as antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and tranquilizers may impair the ability of the body to sweat. Alcohol consumption deprives the body of water.

The human body does have the ability to acclimate to hot weather. However, it can take days to re-establish bodily balance with the environment. If a heat wave comes on suddenly, or if a person travels from a cooler environment to a hot environment, the risk of heat exhaustion increases. Healthy individuals can feel this change when vacationing to a hot climate. It may take 10 days for the body to adapt to hot weather.

It is important to have home care staff be alert to any/all symptoms of heat related illness for seniors.