We still have plenty of the summer heat and humidity to go this year, so it’s important to know the signs of heat-related illness and how to avoid these serious conditions.
The body normally cools itself by sweating, but when temperatures and humidity are high it gets harder for our bodies to cool off through sweating. Those at greatest risk of suffering heat related illness are the elderly, the very young, those with heart disease, obesity, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, those un-acclimatized to the heat, and those using prescription drugs which limit sweating and decrease circulating blood volume. Manual labor and exercising when it is hot and humid out can also increase your risk for heat-related illness.
Heat-related illness can be classified into three categories of increasing severity: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat cramps might not seem serious, but they can lead to other serious problems. Recognizing and treating heat cramps is an important step in preventing further heat-related illness.
Symptoms of heat cramps include muscle pains or spasms, typically in your abdomen, arms or legs. Heat cramps are most commonly associated with performing strenuous activity in the heat – things like football practice, yard work and distance running.
Here’s what happens: sweating during vigorous activity depletes your body’s normal levels of salt, water and electrolytes. By not rehydrating properly, your body will have an altered level of sodium and potassium which can lead to muscle cramping.
If you or someone you know is experiencing heat cramps, stop all activity. Rest in a quiet, cool place and drink fluids.
Typically two glasses of water, alternating with one glass of a sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade, will help relieve symptoms. Avoid strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps go away. If the cramps do not go away within an hour, call your doctor or head to the hospital for treatment.
Heat exhaustion is very common. You’re basically overheated. Cooling methods like shade, hydration and rest are all that is needed.
People on diuretic medications, the elderly and people who must work or exercise in the heat but are not accustomed to the heat are at the highest risk for heat exhaustion. People with obesity, poor conditioning, pregnancy and chronic illness are also at an increased risk for heat exhaustion.
Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, fatigue, headache, pale clammy skin, thirst, nausea and vomiting. You might also feel weak, have a mild temperature, feel like your heart is racing, dizziness (possibly with fainting) and cramping in your abdomen and extremities.
This all happens because your body is experiencing a greater loss of water and electrolytes than it would during an episode of heat cramps.
If you or someone you know is experiencing heat exhaustion, find an air conditioned environment if possible. Drink cool – but not cold – fluids like water and increase heat dissipation by fanning or taking a cool bath or shower. Focus on rehydrating with water and sports drinks – again remembering to drink two glasses of water for every one glass of sports drink.
When it comes to heat exhaustion, prevention is important. Remember to maintain hydration while you’re working in the heat, schedule regular rest cycles to allow your body to cool off and remember to allow time to hydrate. Check in on the elderly frequently during heat waves. Make sure they have access to fans, fluids and air conditioning.
Heat stroke is the most serious of all heat-related illnesses.
Heat stroke is when the body’s ability to cool itself – even with the help of outside cooling methods – is over-run.
During heat stroke your sweating mechanism fails and your body temperature rises rapidly to 106 degrees or higher within about ten to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can lead to death or permanent disability unless it is effectively treated quickly.
Signs of heat stroke include a lack of sweating and red, hot and dry skin. Other symptoms include rapid pulse, throbbing headache, nausea and a rapid rise in body temperature. Heat stroke can also cause confusion that rapidly progresses into a loss of consciousness.
Heat stroke happens when exposure to high heat and humidity causes your body to rapidly progress through heat cramps and heat exhaustion into heat stroke.
If you suspect you or someone you are with is experiencing heat stroke, call 911 immediately. This is a medical emergency. While waiting for a response, try to cool the person off with all means available. Move into air conditioning or at least a shady spot.
Apply ice packs to the armpits, groin and forehead. Place the victim in a cool shower if possible and fan vigorously. Definitive treatment will happen at the ER, but working to cool a victim down at home or in the field may save their life.
While outdoor exercise is a great way to maintain your health and fitness, the heat of summer can increase your risk for heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Keeping tabs on how you feel and planning ahead can help you avoid heat illness while you work out.
Rehydrate your body. While exercising in hot weather you can easily lose up to a quart of water an hour. Drink water before, during and after exercising. Since your body can only absorb 8 ounces of cold water every 20 minutes, continue to drink fluids even after you no longer feel thirsty. Sports drinks are not necessary and may actually absorb more slowly than plain water.
Avoid working out during peak hours. Very hot and humid weather hampers perspiration's ability to cool your body. Try exercising in the morning or evening to avoid the most intense weather.
Be open to new ideas. Try a new exercise or activity every two weeks, such as hiking, canoeing, rollerblading or biking. These activities will allow you easy access to water or rest.
Cool off in the water. Swimming is an excellent way to exercise during the summer months. Performing strokes such as the backstroke or doggie paddle at the shallow or deep end of the pool still counts as aerobic exercise.
Choose the appropriate clothing. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored and synthetic clothing that is designed to improve air circulation around your body and wick sweat away from your skin.
Avoiding Heat-Related Illnesses
When it comes to staying safe in the heat, prevention is key. These tips can help you prevent heat-related illness:
Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
Use a sunscreen with SPF15 or higher.
Drink extra fluids. The general recommendation to prevent dehydration is to drink at least eight glasses of water, fruit or vegetable juice per day. During times of extreme heat and humidity, it may be advisable to substitute an electrolyte-rich sports drink for water during strenuous activity.
Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic drinks. These don’t hydrate your body as effectively as water or juice.
Take breaks from the heat to cool off and hydrate.