Stay cool and beat the heat
As summertime approaches and the weather begins to heat up, it’s important to keep your cool to avoid heat-related illness. While heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that around 700 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat each year. So what should you be on the lookout for to keep yourself safe?
Heat-related illnesses, such as heat rash, cramps, heat stroke and heat exhaustion, happen when your body isn’t able to properly cool itself. When your body temperature rises, it normally cools itself by sweating. But when the weather is hot and humid, it’s more difficult for sweat to evaporate. This causes your body to produce more sweat in an effort to cool itself, which leads to the loss of body fluid and salt.
Dr. Caleb Trent, a board-certified emergency medicine physician with Lawrence Emergency Medicine Associates at LMH Health, says the best advice for avoiding heat-related illness is to use your 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,” he said.
Certain people are more susceptible to the effects of the heat than others. Those at greatest risk include infants and young children and people age 65 and older. Dehydration, sunburn, certain medications and alcohol use can also limit the ability to regulate body temperature, increasing the likelihood for heat-related illness to strike.
Heat rash is a skin irritation that occurs as a result of excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. It looks like a red cluster of bumps, pimples or small blisters and is most common in young children. Heat rash is most likely to occur:
- On the neck and upper chest
- In the groin
- Under the breasts
- In elbow creases
You can treat heat rash on your own by getting to a cooler, less humid environment and keeping the area dry.
Strenuous activity and overexertion can result in heat cramps. These are common and usually occur in the abdomen, arms or legs when sweating depletes the body’s salt and fluids, causing painful cramps.
Dr. Trent says that if you experience heat cramps, stop your physical activity, get into a cooler environment and increase your hydration.
“Patients with heat cramps can often be treated at home,” he said. “But if you aren’t adequately treated, you could progress to heat exhaustion. If your cramps don’t subside in an hour or two, consider seeking medical attention.”
Dr. Trent said heat exhaustion is common during the hot summer months, with a number of patients coming through the LMH Health Emergency Department each year. The hotter it is outside, the more likely the team is to see patients with this diagnosis.
If you’re suffering from heat exhaustion, it’s because your body has lost too much fluid and salt while trying to cool itself. Warning signs of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
If you experience these warning signs and symptoms, move to a cool, air-conditioned place and drink cool, non-alcoholic beverages. But if you faint – or have an episode of syncope, as physicians call it – it’s time to seek professional help.
“People who pass out should probably be evaluated by a medical professional. If you’ve got an underlying illness, you’ve been unconscious for over a minute or you’re confused afterward, that’s more concerning,” he said. “If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke. If you’re in doubt, call 911 and have the person assessed by EMS. They’re great partners in evaluating this group of patients.”
Of all the heat-related illnesses, heat stroke is the most serious. It occurs when your body is unable to control its temperature and is unable to cool down.
“Heat strokes are rare but when someone suffers one, it’s essential to seek immediate medical assistance,” Dr. Trent said. “Otherwise, death or irreversible brain damage could occur.”
Symptoms of heat stroke may vary from person to person, but may include:
- High body temperature (above 104⁰F)
- Red, dry skin without sweating
- Throbbing headache
- Rapid pulse
If you see any of these signs and suspect that someone is suffering from heat stroke, call 911 and move the person to a cool place. Loosen or remove their clothing, splash cool liquid on their face, neck, underarms and groin and wait for help to arrive.
Preventing heat-related illnesses
“One of the things I observe is that people get into trouble when they’re outside and haven’t built up a tolerance to the heat,” Dr. Trent said. “Humidity and heat index are also factors to consider when deciding if it’s just too hot.”
Dr. Trent said people doing strenuous work, those wearing protective equipment and who take medications that impair sweating are at higher risk of suffering a heat-related illness. He said that staying cool and hydrated are the best ways to help from becoming ill. The CDC recommends you wear light, loose-fitting clothing and wear sunscreen.
“Take frequent breaks and avoid working outside during the hottest part of the day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” he said. “Beware of drinking too much alcohol, as it can impair your situational awareness and alter your body’s ability to cool itself.”
And don’t count on soda to get you through a scorching afternoon, either. Very sugary drinks can cause you to lose more body fluid, leading to worsening dehydration.
“Caffeine should be used carefully. Coupled with a loss of body fluid, it can also increase cardiac stimulation,” said Dr. Trent. “If you start to experience symptoms of a heat-related illness, listen to your body. Rest, get to a cool place, don’t continue to push yourself and if you’re in doubt, call 911!”