We are no strangers to extreme heat here in Hunt County. We know better than to grab the steering wheel after the car has been sitting in the sun. We feed the dogs ice cubes. We pay ridiculous electric bills during the summer months. And we certainly don’t leave pets or children waiting in the car. But even for the most seasoned Texan, the heat can sneak up and cause problems.
What is a Heat-Related Illness?
A heat-related illness can occur when the normal methods the body uses to cool itself are not sufficient. For example, when you are overheated you perspire. As the sweat evaporates, it cools you down (Remember learning about evaporative cooling in high school science? This is where it comes in handy!) But sometimes this isn’t enough, and we can’t cool ourselves fast enough to keep our body temperature at a normal level. As our temperature rises, we are at risk for three forms of heat-related illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related illness. These muscle spasms are most common after exercise in high heat causes a large loss of water and salt through the sweat. Inadequate intake of fluids contributes to the cramps, which can be felt in the arms, legs, and abdomen. They may occur at the time of exercise or up to several hours later.
These spasms are not usually associated with any permanent damage, but they can be very painful. They can also be a sign of more severe heat-related illness – heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Heat exhaustion falls between heat cramps and heat stroke on the severity scale. Individuals with heat exhaustion will feel cool to the touch even while sweating heavily. They may feel faint or dizzy and have a rapid pulse. Standing may make this worse because of low blood pressure. Nausea, headache, and muscle cramps are other common symptoms of heat exhaustion. Individuals with heat exhaustion should immediately take steps to cool off and prevent an escalation to heat stroke.
The most severe of the heat-related illnesses, heat stroke is a medical emergency. It is characterized by a body temperature of 104 F or higher (by rectal thermometer, other thermometers will read cooler). In addition, individuals with heat stroke may have confusion, difficulty clearly articulating their words, agitation, and even seizures or coma. These individuals will no longer sweat as expected in a high termperature situation and the skin may feel dry and hot.
They will commonly experience nausea, vomiting, and headache while the skin flushes and the heart races. In this emergency situation take steps to cool the patient and call 911 immediately.
Who is at Risk for Heat-Related Illness?
Heat related-illness affects some groups more than others. Infants and young children, the elderly, and those with chronic disease are most likely to develop one of these disorders.
In addition, those who find themselves in excessively hot situations have a higher risk. This group includes athletes and those who work outdoors for extended periods of time.
How Can You Prevent Heat-Related Illness?
As with any illness, prevention is the best approach. Avoid excessive heat when possible, and take breaks in air-conditioned environments when you can’t avoid spending time in the heat. Stay well-hydrated and dress in loose, light clothing.
In addition, it’s a good idea to check on friends and neighbors who may be at increased risk because of their age, health status, living conditions, or other factors.
What Should You Do if You or Someone Around You Develops Heat Cramps, Exhaustion, or Stroke?
For heat cramps, the first step is to get to a cool environment. Then rest and rehydrate with a sports drink or water. If you have other symptoms that may suggest a more severe illness, or you are unable to keep fluids down, seek medical treatment.
For heat exhaustion, get cool quick – inside and out. Drink a cool, non-alcoholic beverage, rest in an air-conditioned space, and remove any heavy or binding clothing. You may take a cool (not cold) bath or sponge off with cool water to help with recovery. If your symptoms get worse or last more than an hour, seek immediate medical attention.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency and the patient risks brain and organ damage if they don’t get treatment right away. Call 911 and get the affected person to an air-conditioned or shady spot. Remove any heavy clothing from the individual and cool them in anyway possible – sponging, dipping into cool water, fanning, spraying with a garden hose, etc.
Most importantly, pay attention to how you are feeling and to those around you when you are out in the heat. Taking steps to cool off before any symptoms begin is the key to avoiding serious illness and possible disability.
If you have any questions about staying healthy in the heat, please get in touch. Our practitioners will be happy to discuss it with you.