By Huelen E. Smith Jr., M.D.
If you like to spend time outside doing things like exercising or gardening, then you are in danger of developing heat-related illnesses such as heat edema, heat exhaustion or life-threatening heat stroke.
People 65 and older are especially at risk. Their bodies are less able to cope with high temperatures and are more likely to be living with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or heart failure. They also take medications that make them more likely to suffer from heat related illness.
Another group at risk for heat exhaustion is health care professionals. WellMed’s medical staff is on the front lines screening patients as they enter the clinic or meeting them at their car for check-in.
Here are some tips for those of you working in the heat.
- Stay inside between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. That’s usually the hottest part of the day. If you have to be outside, stay in the shade.
- Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. Being thirsty is not a good way to tell if you need fluids, so it’s best to drink small amounts of water every 15 minutes. Avoid caffeine. Wear loose-fitting, light clothing like scrubs.
- Take periodic breaks to recover from the heat. Set an alarm on your cell phone as a reminder to take it easy.
There are three types of heat-related illness to know about.
- Heat edema or swelling in the arms and legs, and sometimes flushing in the face. If you think you have become overheated and notice your hands or feet and legs swelling, go inside an air conditioned home or room, remove heavy clothing and drink water and rest. It’s also helpful to use a fan to help your sweat evaporate.
- Heat exhaustion is the most common heat-related illness. Symptoms include thirst, headache, weakness, nausea, rapid heartbeat, cold or clammy skin, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Your temperature could rise between 101 and 104 degrees. It’s important to treat heat exhaustion as soon as possible by getting into an air-conditioned area with a fan. Lay on your back, elevate your legs and sip water to re-hydrate. People who exercise in the heat can develop heat-associated collapse, a moderate but sometimes more serious type of heat exhaustion. Symptoms include feeling lightheaded, dizziness and even passing out. You may need to seek medical treatment if you don’t recover within 20 minutes of being moved to a cooler location and re-hydrating.
- Heat illness is heat stroke. It can be life-threatening and should be treated by a clinician. Symptoms of heat stroke include confusion, slurred speech, seizures, and a fast heartbeat. Heat stroke victims might also hyperventilate, sweat heavily or have completely dry skin, and a core temperature of 105 degrees or higher. People suffering from heat stroke might also pass out. If you see someone suffering from possible heat stroke, call an ambulance. Move the patient out of the heat and put ice packs on his or her neck, in their armpits or on the groin. If no ice is available, use wet sheets or washcloths, or spray with water from a garden hose or spritzer and fan the person. Let them sip cool, not cold water. Cold water could give the patient stomach cramps.
Being outside is necessary for many folks. But you need to be aware of your environment and your body. And remember to take the necessary steps to protect yourself from the sweltering heat. Your health is in your hands.
Huelen Smith Jr., M.D. received his medical degree and completed his residency in Family Medicine at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. He practices at WellMed at Seguin in Seguin, Texas.