The warm months are a great time to get outside and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. But as the temperatures rise, it is important to brush-up on understandings and tips to prevent heat-related illnesses. Experts agree that, generally speaking, heat-related illnesses can strike anyone of any age. However, the elderly, those on certain medications, and children under 4 are at an even greater risk.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know About Heat-Related Illnesses
What are heat cramps?
The mildest form of heat illness where the muscles in our calves, arms, and abdomen spasm/cramp due to profuse sweating. This results in the loss of sodium, potassium, and magnesium as well as water. The cramps are painful and involuntary.
If you experience this, it is important to retreat to a shady or cool area, drink water or other cool beverages, and rest several hours before exertion.
What is heat exhaustion?
If left untreated, heat cramps can progress to heat exhaustion. This is a condition where we experience weakness, nausea, vomiting, and headaches along with muscle cramps and profuse sweating.
If you (or someone you know) are experiencing heat exhaustion, move to a cooler place, lie down, and loosen your clothing. You can work to decrease your internal temperature by: applying cool, wet cloths or ice packs/compresses to as much of your body as possible and sipping cool or chilled beverages. If you are vomiting and it continues, seek medical attention.
What is heat stroke?
If left untreated, heat exhaustion can become a medical emergency called heat stroke. This occurs when our body’s temperature regulation becomes overwhelmed and starts to fail. In other words, our ability to cool down can no longer keep up. Heat stroke is typically seen when temperatures rise to 104oF (40oC) or higher. Our body is forced to divert blood from the internal organs to the arms and legs, in a last ditch effort to dissipate heat. But in doing so, it can shut down our internal organs.
As we become more dehydrated from sweating (sweat facilitates the transfer of heat out of our body into the environment), our blood pressure begins to drop. To compensate, the heart starts beating faster in order to deliver an adequate amount of oxygen and nutrients to our heart and brain. Eventually, the heart starts to give out and can no longer meet the needs of our organs. Altered mental status, seizures, and a coma can result. Death often occurs when the body’s internal temperature reaches 108oF.
Again, this is a medical emergency—call 911 immediately! And while waiting for help, move the person to a cooler environment and apply cool cloths or immerse them in a cool bath. Because they may be confused or experience a seizure or coma, do not give them fluids to drink. They may aspirate it—the medical term for food, drink, or other objects invading the lungs. This, in and of itself, can be deadly.
What are causes of heat-related illnesses?
- Exposure to a hot environment, such as being inside a car or poorly ventilated, non-air-conditioned space
- Strenuous activity
What are risk factors for heat-related illnesses?
- Age: in children, their central nervous system is not fully developed; in older adults, their central nervous system begins to deteriorate, thereby making the body less capable of coping with body temperature changes. Both groups also have a difficult time remaining hydrated, or sensing that they need hydration.
- Wearing too much or heavy clothing: prevents sweat from evaporating easily and cooling the body
- Drinking alcohol: affects the body’s ability to regulate its temperature, and also increases urination which contributes to dehydration
- Certain medications: beta blockers, diuretics, and some antidepressants, as well as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs
- Certain health conditions: heart and lung disease
- And, activities: whether you’re outside for work or play, being active or exercising in the heat poses real threats that can progress quickly
How can I prevent heat-related illnesses?
- Stay cool! The shade, a fan, and air-conditioning are our allies when it comes to fending off heat-related illnesses. Additionally, spritzing water on our body or taking a cool shower or bath can help dissipate heat.
- Drink plenty of fluids when temperatures rise as well as before, during, and after physical activity. While the amount of fluid we lose from sweat varies–depending on the temperature, type of physical activity, and our genetics—it can be more than you think! For instance, the average adult loses 0.8 to 1.4 liters of fluid every hour of exercise. Additionally, electrolytes are lost, so it may help to reach for a rehydration drink or fruit juice to replenish these.
- Avoid strenuous activity in hot, humid weather
- Avoid sunburn because burnt skin does not sweat properly and can prevent our body’s ability to cool itself
- Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day, typically between 10 am and 4 pm
- Wear light-weight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing to allow our body to sweat and dissipate heat
Keep an eye on yourself and those with you this summer. If you experience any of these signs and do not start feeling better with rest and cooling off, call a health care provider for help. Remember, early signs are easier to treat than waiting until the illness gets worse.
And an alarming statistic is that heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children. Never leave anyone—child, adult, or pet—inside a car unattended, even for a moment. Due to the “greenhouse warming effect,” temperatures inside a car can skyrocket–by as much as 20oF in as little as 10 minutes. The sun’s radiation enters the car as heat, and is trapped by the glass. It is also absorbed by the materials in the car—the seats, the dashboard, the carpets and all these materials re-radiate the heat. Even on cooler days, we can see a rapid escalation.
From running to working to playing outdoors the heat can be risky for your health. Even short periods in high temperatures can cause health problems that range from minor to life-threatening. Following these tips along with taking precautionary measures will help you and yours stay safe this summer.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.