Summers in any warm climate increase the danger of heat illnesses. Your body normally cools itself by sweating, but during hot weather, especially when humid, sweating isn’t enough to cool you off. Exercising, playing, working, even relaxing in high heat can cause the body temperature to rise to dangerous levels. Everyone is at risk, but some more than others:
- People over 65 years old
- Infants and children under 4
- Those experiencing febrile illness (i.e. flu or cold)
- People who are overweight (excess weight can effect the body’s ability to regulate temperature and cause it to retain more heat)
- People who are dehydrated (dehydration decreases the ability to sweat, which helps maintain a normal temperature)
- Individuals taking some medicines like blood pressure medication, antihistamines, antipsychotics, tranquilizers, and some illegal drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines can increase the core temperature
- Somebody with poor circulation
- Anybody with already sunburned skin (decreases the body’s ability to cool itself)
- Those drinking alcohol, sugary drinks, and caffeine; all impact hydration, and the body’s ability to regulate its temperature
- Individuals with chronic medical issues like diabetes and high blood pressure
To avoid injury to yourself or your loved ones, it’s important to know the symptoms and how to counteract them.
Heat exhaustion is when the body’s ability to regulate heat is gradually overwhelmed. Heat exhaustion is something often overlooked because of the nature of heat itself. We know it’s hot outside, and many of us assume that some discomfort is just associated with that kind of weather. Physical reactions to heat can quickly turn dangerous if untreated. When in a warm climate, keep an eye out for:
• Confusion, dizziness and / or fainting
• Dark-colored urine (a sign you’re likely dehydrated)
•Muscle or abdominal cramps
• Nausea, vomiting and / or diarrhea
• Pale skin
• Profuse sweating
• Heart palpitations and feeling short of breath
Illness from the heat can progress from mild to life threatening quickly, so even early symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. According to the CDC, around 618 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat annually. If you, or anybody you’re with, experiences these symptoms, find a cool or shady area, remove restrictive clothing, wet skin and rehydrate, if possible with electrolyte rich fluids such as Gatorade. If symptoms don’t improve after a short time (around 15 minutes), seek medical attention. Heat exhaustion can quickly lead to the most dangerous form of heat illness- heatstroke.
Compared to heat exhaustion, heat stroke happens when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature and over heats. Sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat so the skin becomes dry and hot. A fever of 104 or higher is often a tell-tale sign, as is confusion, delirium, a severe headache, and irritability. People with heat stroke might experience nausea and vomiting, as well as rapid breathing or heart rate. Heat stroke requires emergency medical attention. After calling 911, it’s imperative to get to a cool place, and do whatever it takes to cool down- even remove clothing or take a cold shower. Heat stroke can lead to unconsciousness or seizures and exposure for a prolonged period of time can damage internal organs, including the brain, and lead to death.
The best way to deal with heat illness is to avoid it. Plan the hike and go with a buddy who might notice changes in your behavior long before you do. Let others know where you’re going and have a working cell phone to contact emergency help if needed. Research the weather and avoid the outdoors during the hottest hours. Wear a sunscreen that’s at least an SPF of 30 (look for “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection”), a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and loose fitting, light-weight, light colored clothes. Don’t forget to take plenty of fluids- even double what you think you’ll need, especially electrolyte rich ones. When you’ve gone though half your supplies, turn around and head back.
While enjoying warm climates has its perks (who doesn’t love so much sunshine?!), it is also important to stay vigilant with your health. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur quickly and escalate rapidly from minimal to massive, life threatening symptoms. Be prepared and the heat shouldn’t be a reason to stay indoors.
Take a look at additional information on the symptoms, risk factors, and treatment for heat exhaustion and heatstroke from the Centers for Disease Control.
-Additional information provided by the Mayo clinic, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), and the American Family Physician Journal