Dangers of High Temperatures and Humidity

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Summer is here and temperatures are soaring in many parts of the United States. Heat and humidity are a dangerous combination that increases the risk for heat-related health problems, especially in the elderly and young children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people over the age of 65 are more likely to experience hyperthermia—that is, elevated body temperature—and are less able to adjust to sudden temperature changes than younger people. Chronic conditions that are more common in older adults, such as heart, lung or kidney disease, can affect the body’s response to heat and humidity.

Also, elderly people are more likely to take prescription medications like diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers and certain heart and blood pressure medicines that can affect the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. People of any age who are very over- or underweight are also at increased risk for heat-related medical problems.

Heat-Related Conditions

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) identifies several illnesses that are related to elevated body temperature, including the following:

  • Heat syncope (sudden dizziness or feeling faint; usually caused by activity during hot weather)—People who take a beta blocker, for example to treat certain heart conditions, and those who are not used to warmer temperatures are at higher risk for heat syncope. Treatment includes resting in a cool place, putting your feet up, and drinking water until the dizziness passes.
  • Heat cramps (painful tightening of the muscles; usually affects the stomach and legs)—Heat cramping occurs most often during hard work or intense exercise in warm weather. Treatment includes resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water.
  • Heat edema (swelling of the lower legs)—Some people experience swelling of the feet, ankles, fingers and hands in hot weather. To reduce swelling, rest in a cool place and put your feet up. Contact your health care provider if these measures are ineffective.
  • Heat exhaustion (excessive thirst, dizziness, weakness, nausea and possible rapid pulse; an inability of the body to regulate its temperature)—Heat exhaustion is a warning to cool down. It can progress quickly to a medical emergency called heat stroke. People with heat exhaustion may experience heavy sweating, cold and clammy skin, and rapid pulse. Treatment involves resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of fluids. (Water is best.) If these measures are ineffective, seek medical attention.
  • Heat stroke (medical emergency that can be life threatening)—During hot weather, older people who do not have air conditioning, people who become dehydrated, and people with chronic diseases or alcoholism are at high risk for this serious condition. Symptoms of heat stroke include:
    • Fainting
    • Body temperature over 104° F
    • Change in behavior (confusion, irritability, agitation)
    • Uncoordinated movements (staggering)
    • Dry, flushed skin; absence of sweating
    • Severe headache
    • Strong, rapid pulse or slow, weak pulse
    • Unresponsiveness, coma

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Prevent Heat-Related Medical Problems in Older Adults

During hot weather, check in with older relatives and neighbors frequently—visit or call a couple times each day if possible. Look for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke and seek prompt medical attention if necessary.

Encourage older adults (and others!) to drink plenty of water and juices and limit caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and colas, and alcohol. People who take diuretics ("water pills") or who have a medical condition like congestive heart failure (CHF) that normally calls for restrictions on their daily fluid intake should ask their health care provider for hot weather recommendations.

If an elderly family member or neighbor doesn’t have access to air conditioning, offer to take him or her to your home or to another place that’s cool, such as a senior center, local library or shopping mall. If concerns about electric bill increases associated with running an air conditioner or fan are an issue, contact a resource like the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program. Keeping the shades or blinds drawn during the day and opening the windows at night also can help keep the house a bit cooler.

Here are some additional tips to prevent heat-related health problems:

  • Make sure older adults dress appropriately for the weather. Lightweight, light-colored clothes are generally cooler, as are natural fabrics like cotton.
  • Advise older adults to avoid outside activities and strenuous activities inside when the temperature and humidity levels are high. Offer to take care of necessary household chores.
  • Recommend older adults take a daily shower, bath or sponge bath with cool water.
  • Encourage older adults to limit their oven use. Offer to grocery shop for them or provide nutritious, warm-weather meals.
  • Provide transportation or encourage older adults to call a taxi or senior transportation service if they need help to get around. Waiting outside for public transportation can be dangerous in hot weather.
  • Call 911 and get immediate medical assistance if an older relative or neighbor shows signs of heat-related illness.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institute of Aging, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 20 Jun 2012

Last Modified: 07 Jan 2015