It’s that time of year when people participate in more outdoor activities such as golf, tennis, fishing and gardening. But beware! Too much time spent in the hot sun can occasionally lead to heat disorders.
Caleb Trent, a board-certified emergency physician at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, says the best advice for avoiding heat-related conditions is to use common sense and know your limitations.
“No matter what your normal activity level is, when the heat and humidity increase, so does your risk for heat-related problems, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion or heat cramps,” Trent said.
Certain people are more susceptible to the effects of excessive heat than others. They include the elderly, people who drink alcohol to excess, and anyone who is taking certain medications that promote the loss of salt and water from the body. Examples include diuretics and antihistamines.
Trent explained that when your body temperature rises, either because of the air temperature or exercise, your body releases excess heat by sweating. As the sweat evaporates from your skin, your body cools off. At the same time, your heart pumps more blood and dilates the blood vessels on the skin surface so that even more heat can be released.
In order for the sweat to evaporate and for the blood vessels to dilate, the air temperature needs to be cooler than your body temperature, and relatively dry. In hot, humid weather, it is more difficult for sweat to evaporate. Thus, your body, unable to cool itself, produces more sweat. This causes even more loss of body fluid and salt.
Trent said that of all of the heat disorders, the most serious is heat stroke, also known as sunstroke. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s cooling mechanism completely breaks down. A person’s body temperature may be very high (at least 104 degrees) but he or she is not sweating. The skin will be flushed and the pulse rate rapid. Other symptoms may include confusion, agitation, lethargy or loss of consciousness.
“When someone suffers heat stroke, it is essential to seek immediate medical assistance,” Trent said. “Otherwise, death or irreversible brain damage could result.”
If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, call 911 and move the victim to a cool place, preferably one that is air-conditioned. Remove or loosen the person’s clothing and splash any available cool liquid onto the individual, particularly on the neck, underarms and groin. Seek medical assistance even if the temperature falls.
Heat exhaustion also results in breakdown of the body’s cooling system but is usually not life threatening, Trent said. In heat exhaustion, the body loses too much fluid and salt while trying to cool itself. Pale and damp skin but a normal temperature is usually seen in someone suffering from heat exhaustion. Other symptoms may include fatigue, weakness and nausea.
Move the victim to a cool place and have them lie down with their feet elevated. Small amounts of cool, salty liquids (one teaspoon of salt per quart of liquid) should be given over the period of an hour or so.
Overexertion in hot weather can result in heat cramps. These are painful muscle spasms that usually occur in the abdomen, legs and arms due to excessive loss of salt and fluid from the body tissues. Trent said if heat cramps occur, rest in a cool place, drink a glass of salty water every 15 minutes for an hour, apply wet compresses to the cramped muscles and slowly stretch the cramped area.
Prevention of heat disorders
When the temperature is above 80 degrees, avoid any strenuous activity outdoors or any indoor space that is warm and poorly ventilated. If you must exercise or work outdoors, try to avoid the middle hours of the day (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), when the sun is hottest, and take plenty of rest breaks in an air-conditioned place, if possible. In addition, wear light, loose-fitting clothing that allows heat and sweat to escape.
Also drink plenty of fluids but avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, which can actually add to fluid loss. “The amount of fluid in your body is key to how well your body is able to regulate its temperature,” Trent said.
If symptoms of a heat disorder begin to appear, don’t push yourself to finish that round of golf or the yard work. Listen to your body. By following Trent’s advice you should be able to continue to enjoy the “fun in the sun” that the summer weather provides.
—Janice Early, MBA, is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which is a major sponsor of WellCommons.