Heat Related Illness

It is summer time and the heat and humidity are higher than at any other time of the year.   We spend more time in the outdoors so we must learn to protect ourselves against the unique illnesses caused by this increased exposure.  Heat related illness occurs when your body cannot keep itself cool. As the air temperature rises, your body cools off by sweating.  Sweating occurs when liquid on your skin surface evaporates. On hot humid days, the evaporation of moisture is slowed down by the increased moisture in the air. When sweating cannot cool you down your body temperature rises and you may become ill.

Some people are at greater risk to develop heat related illness than others. This includes infants and young children, people 65 years of age or older, people with mental illness taking medications, the physically ill; especially those with heart disease, high blood pressure and lung disease.  Individuals who have suffered from heat exhaustion or heat stroke in the past have an increased risk of developing recurrent heat illnesses.

When your body overheats due to very hot weather and or exercise in the heat, you are susceptible to heat exhaustion. Patients experience heavy sweating, non-specific weakness and or confusion, dizziness, nausea, headache, rapid heartbeat and dark very concentrated urine.

If you experience these symptoms in the heat you need to get out of the heat quickly. Find an air conditioned building and rest in it. If you cannot find an air conditioned building then get into the shade and out of the sun. Start drinking cool liquids (avoid caffeine and alcohol which exacerbate fluid loss and heat related disease). Take a cool shower or bath or apply cool water to your skin. Remove any tight constricting clothing.  If you do not feel better within 30 minutes you must contact your physician or seek emergency help.

Untreated or inadequately treated heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke. Heatstroke occurs when the internal body temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Heatstroke is far more serious than heat exhaustion it can cause damage to your internal organs and brain and it can kill you.  Patients with heatstroke are running a fever of 104 degree F or higher. They complain of severe headaches with a dizzy or light headed feeling. Their skin is flushed or red in appearance and they are NOT sweating.  Many will be experiencing severe and painful muscle cramps accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Their heartbeats are rapid, their blood pressure low. They are often extremely agitated, anxious and disoriented with some experiencing tonic clinic epileptic type seizures.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency and you must call 911 immediately. While you are waiting for help to arrive remove their clothing after taking the patient to an air conditioned or shady place. Wet the skin with water and fan the skin if possible. If you have access to ice or ice packs place them on the patient’s neck, back, groin and armpits while waiting for help.

Heat illness is preventable. When the heat index is over 90 and you must go outside wear lightweight, light-colored, loose fitting clothing. Wear a hat or use an umbrella.  Apply sunscreen SPF 30 or greater 15-20 minutes BEFORE going outside. Drink plenty of water before you go out and 2-4 glasses of cool water each hour you are outside working in the heat. Avoid alcohol and caffeine including soda with caffeine.  Take frequent breaks every 20 minutes and drink water or sports drink even if you do not feel thirsty. Try to schedule your outside work for before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. to avoid peak sun exposure.

If you are being treated for chronic medical conditions ask your doctor how to prevent heat illness.  Patients taking antihistamines, some blood pressure medications (beta-blockers and vasoconstrictors), diet pills, anti depressants and antipsychotics impair your ability to control your internal body temperature. Water pills to prevent excessive fluid lead to dehydration. Anti-epilepsy and anti-seizure medicines impair your body’s ability to regulate internal temperatures as well.

Heat illness is preventable if you take the precautions outlined above.