Keep Your Cool When the Heat Is On!
Tips for Preventing and Treating Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke
Warm summer weather tends to draw people outdoors for fun in the sun. When it gets too warm, though, your body may not be able to keep itself cool, resulting in heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
The most serious heat-related condition, heatstroke, is a type of hyperthermia, which is an abnormally elevated body temperature. It is a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated promptly. The milder condition known as heat exhaustion can sometimes lead to heatstroke. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 700 people die each year due to heat-related illness.
"Someone with heat exhaustion is likely to be sweating heavily and to experience thirst, headache, nausea, dizziness or weakness, and flushing of the face and limbs," says Dr. Steven Curran, a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Washington Hospital.
"The person’s body temperature may rise with heat exhaustion, but usually not much over 100 degrees," he adds. "With heatstroke, the body’s heat-regulating function is completely overwhelmed and the internal core body temperature rises to 104 - 105 degrees or more. Heatstroke can affect the function of the kidneys and the liver and can cause muscle tissue to break down or a dangerous buildup of fluid in the lungs. At 106 degrees, the person actually will start to suffer brain damage."
A person suffering from heatstroke generally stops sweating and experiences difficulty breathing, a drop in blood pressure and an increase in heart rate. A heatstroke victim may become confused or irrational and suffer hallucinations. The person also may lose consciousness or suffer seizures.
The people who are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses include the elderly, very young children and people who are born with an impaired ability to sweat. People who are taking certain medications such as antidepressants or diuretics for high blood pressure also may be more at risk for heatstroke.
"The biggest risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke is among elderly people with poor mobility who are confined in a closed space with poor ventilation or inadequate air conditioning," Dr. Curran says, "If you have elderly relatives or neighbors who are confined indoors during a heat wave, be sure to check on them regularly."
Dr. Curran notes that other individuals can be at an increased risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke, including people with certain pre-existing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and psychiatric or neurological disorders that require taking medications that can interfere with the body’s natural cooling mechanisms. Young athletes who are exercising strenuously in hot weather also may be at risk.
"Heat exhaustion and heatstroke generally take a couple of hours to develop, but they may come on more suddenly, such as in the case of an athlete who is working out in high heat with poor hydration," Dr. Curran explains.
"Staying hydrated is one of the most important measures you can take to avoid heat exhaustion and heatstroke," he emphasizes. "Drink plenty of fluids, especially before and during exercise. If you wait until you’re dehydrated and thirsty, you may have waited too long. Your body loses electrolytes when you sweat, so drinking beverages such as Gatorade or Pedialyte is ideal, but water works, too. Avoid alcoholic beverages because they can actually increase your dehydration. Beverages with caffeine might also raise your heart rate."
Some other recommendations for preventing heat-related illnesses and dealing with mild cases of heat exhaustion include:
- Stay indoors or in the shade if at all possible.
- Avoid strenuous exercise in hot weather.
- Avoid heavy meals during hot weather.
- Be careful of hot cars in the summer – allow the car to cool off before getting in, and never leave children alone in the car.
- Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothes and a hat.
- Use air conditioning or cooling fans. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, consider visiting a shopping mall or other public facility that is air-conditioned.
- Take a cool shower or bath, jump in the pool, run through the sprinklers or spray water on yourself.
If you are with someone who appears to be suffering from heatstroke, Dr. Curran recommends:
"You also can give the person cool beverages to drink – but only if the person is conscious and alert," Dr. Curran adds. "Do not try to get people to drink if they’re vomiting, semi-conscious or unconscious. The person may choke or aspirate liquid into the lungs. Above all, don’t underestimate the serious threat of heatstroke – particularly if the victim is an elderly person, a young child or someone with an injury or pre-existing health condition."