Beat the Heat - Preventing heat-related illnesses
June 17, 2015
Summer is time for fun in the sun, but as the temperatures climb, don’t forget that the heat can be hazardous to your health if you don’t take the necessary precautions. Heat-related illnesses are common during the summer months – especially if you spend a significant amount of time outdoors – and, if not properly managed, can be fatal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, heat-related illnesses cause an average of nearly 620 deaths per year – more deaths annually than tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, combined.
What are Heat-related Illnesses?
Heat-related illnesses are caused by prolonged or excessive exposure to high temperatures and dehydration. Typically, when the body becomes overheated, it cools itself through sweating, but certain conditions can affect our bodies’ capabilities to regulate proper temperature. A few of these conditions include extreme temperatures, inadequate hydration, high humidity, high blood pressure, sunburn, prescription drug use and alcohol use.
When body fluids are lost through physical exertion and not replaced, it is difficult for the body to cool itself. Dehydration can affect circulation and brain function. Heat stroke, the most serious form of heat illness, happens after prolonged, intense exposure to extreme heat. The part of the brain that regulates body temperature malfunctions and the body temperature rises rapidly, sometimes as high as 106 degrees or higher. Without prompt treatment, heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability.
Heat exhaustion, a milder heat illness, can develop after several days of exposure to hot weather or inadequate hydration, i.e., working or exercising outside and not drinking sufficient liquids.
Who’s at Risk?
People at greatest risk for heat-related illnesses include infants and children up to four years of age, adults age 65 and older, people who are overweight, ill, or on certain medications. Outdoor workers, as well as people on low-sodium diets or those suffering from chronic heart, lung or kidney conditions, are also at increased risk.
Dr. Denise Webb of Minden Medical Center offered the following tips for prevention: “If you’re going to be outside, keep cool by drinking plenty of water, aiming for 16-32 ounces of fluid per hour. If you aren’t accustomed to being in a hot environment regularly, start slowly and pace yourself – and take regular breaks from the heat indoors or in the shade. Try to avoid being outdoors during the peak hours of heat and sun exposure.”
“Wearing lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing that breathes, and using plenty of sunscreen, also are good preventative measures to avoid heat-related illnesses,” said Dr. Webb.
Signs and symptoms:
- Elevated body temperature
- Red, hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
- Confusion, lack of coordination
- Muscle cramps
- Rapid pulse or heartbeat
If you notice someone exhibiting signs and symptoms of possible heat stroke, call for medical assistance immediately, and take steps to cool the person experiencing the heat emergency by moving them to a cool, shaded area, and applying cool water to the body by immersing the victim in water, spraying or sponging the skin, or wrapping the person in a cool, wet sheet. If possible, monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the victim’s temperature dips to 102 or below.
Less severe forms of heat illness, such as heat exhaustion, can be relieved by resting quietly in a cool, shady place, drinking clear juice or a sports beverage.
Hot Tips …on the Go
For more resources about heart-related illnesses, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a free mobile app that displays heat index, risks, reminders and protective measures that should be taken at corresponding heat risk levels. The app can be downloaded in English and Spanish at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/heat_app.html.