Heat-related illness: know the signs; take precautions
Featuring Dr. Shailen Mhapsekar, WellMed at Lee Trevino
The heat has been brutal this summer across the nation. Temperatures this high are set to take their place in the record books. Keep in mind however, that extreme heat is more than just a nuisance that drives us indoors; it can be deadly.
Dr. Shailen Mhapsekar of WellMed at Lee Trevino reminds us of the havoc the sun’s deadly rays can do to our bodies if we’re not careful.
“The first thing to keep in mind is older adults are generally more prone to heat-related illness,” he/she said. “They don’t adjust as well to sudden changes in temperature or prolonged exposure to heat. Also, they may have underlying health conditions or take medications that affect the body’s ability to cool itself.”
What are some of the warning signs of heat-related illnesses and what should I do?
There is a variety of heat-related illnesses and the warning signs and symptoms are similar, but unique for each. Some of the most common illnesses and their warning signs are:
- Heat stroke – This occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature and the sweating mechanism fails. This type of illness can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
“This is serious. Never underestimate the effect of too much heat on the body,” said Dr. Mhapsekar.
- Look for high body temperature, typically 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher; losing consciousness or passing out; dizziness, nausea, confusion, headache; hot, red, dry or damp skin.
- What to do: Call 911 immediately; do not give the person anything to drink. It is imperative to begin cooling. Move the person to a cooler place; help lower their body temperature quickly with a cold water or ice bath if possible. Otherwise, soak clothing with cool water.
- Heat exhaustion – A milder form of heat-related illness, exhaustion can take place after several days of exposure to high temperatures and an unbalanced or inadequate replenishment of fluids. Occurs more frequently in elderly people and people with high blood pressure. Get medical help right away if you are throwing up, or if you have symptoms that are getting worse or last more than one hour.
“While milder than heat stroke, don’t ignore signs of heat exhaustion. If allowed to become worse, you could be looking at heat stroke,” said Dr. Mhapsekar.
- Look for heavy sweating, cold and clammy skin, nausea or vomiting, fast or weak pulse, dizziness and headache, tiredness or weakness, muscle cramps.
- What to do: Move to a cool place, sip water, loosen your clothes or put cool, wet clothes on your body.
- Heat cramps – Muscle pains or spasms (typically in the abdomen, arms or legs) may occur with strenuous activity. People who sweat a lot during activity are prone to heat cramps as sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture causing painful cramps.
- What to do: Stop physical activity and move to a cool place; wait for cramps to dissipate before continuing any activity; drink water or a sports drink.
- Heat rash – Skin irritation caused by excessive sweating can occur at any age, but is more common in young children.
- What to do: Stay in a cool, dry place; use powder to soothe the rash and keep the rash dry.
How can people protect their health when temperatures are very high?
“There are two simple rules of thumb: stay cool and stay hydrated,” said Dr. Mhapsekar. He offers these guidelines:
- Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area.
- Don’t use the stove or oven to cook; it will make you and your house hotter.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing and a loose, wide-brimmed hat.
- Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
- Do not engage in outdoor strenuous activities.
- Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
- If your doctor limits the amount of fluids you drink or has you on water pills, ask them how much you should drink during hot weather.
- Drink fruit juice or a sports beverage when you exercise or work in the heat to replace salts and minerals.
- Adjust to your environment – pace yourself if you are working out or working in a hot environment. Increase outdoor activity gradually and limit activity to the cooler times of the day.
“Remember, your body is made up of 60% water. When you let that percentage drop by sweating and not taking in enough hydration, your body is going to suffer,” said Dr. Mhapsekar. “Also, your body functions best when your temperature is within a degree or two of 98.6 degrees. Don’t cause your body to suffer by letting it overheat.”