How to Avoid Heat Related Illnesses in the Summer

People suffer heat-related illnesses which occur when the body cannot properly cool itself. Normally your body cools itself by sweating. It is the body’s biologic air conditioning. However During hot weather, especially with high humidity, the evaporation of sweat is slowed by the increased moisture in the air. The heat and moisture impairs the evaporation of sweat which obstructs the body’s natural cooling system. Your body temperature can rise to dangerous levels and you can develop a heat illness.

People are especially vulnerable to heat related illnesses during a heat wave which is more than 48 hours of 90 degrees Fahrenheit combined with relative humidity of at least 80%.  A high heat index is also cause for concern.  The heat index combines the temperature with humidity to give a reading as to how hot it feels outside. Exposure to full sunshine can also increase the heat index by as much as 15 degrees.

Most heat illnesses occur from staying out in the heat too long or when the body loses more fluids then it takes in. Heat-related illnesses can be serious and life threatening. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs and can be fatal. Heat-related illnesses are preventable if you take proper precautions and recognize the symptoms and act quickly.

Some heat related illnesses include:

Heat Cramps - These usually affect people who sweat a lot during demanding physical activity. Sweating reduces the body's salt and moisture and can cause painful cramps, usually in the abdomen, arms, or legs. You can usually treat heat cramps by stopping all activity and sitting in a cool spot or air-conditioned area. You need to drink water or fluids containing electrolytes (Gatorade or other sports drinks). You should not return to demanding activity for a few hours after the cramps subside.  If you are still experiencing cramps after one hour you should seek medical attention. Ignoring cramps and continuing with your activity could lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Heat Exhaustion - If you are exposed to high temperatures for a long time and don't replace the fluids you lose, the body systems (mainly the hypothalamus) that regulate temperature become overwhelmed. As a result, your body produces more heat than it can release. It also can happen when large volumes of sweat are replaced with fluids that don't contain enough salt. A great way to see if you are properly hydrated is to watch you urine output. If the body is dehydrated, the kidneys will hold onto water, and make concentrated, strong smelling urine. If enough water is present, the urine will be clear in color.

People with heat exhaustion may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Thirst
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Muscle and abdominal cramps
  • Mild temperature elevations

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms you need to get to a shaded spot or to an air conditioned environment (don't forget that cars have air conditioning). Loosen or remove clothes to help with air circulation across the body. Misting the skin with cool water also helps by stimulating evaporation and cooling the body.

Getting fluids is the next important step in treating heat exhaustion. If you are suffering from nausea and vomiting take small sips of water, a mouthful at a time. Sports drinks and other electrolyte replacement drinks are reasonable options but avoid alcohol or caffeinated beverages. A cool bath or shower can be soothing and help lower your body temperature. If none of these actions provide relief within 30 minutes you should contact a doctor because untreated heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.

Heat Stroke - You are considered to have heatstroke when your body temperature reaches 104 F (40 C) or higher. Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can cause permanent damage and death.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Chills
  • Throbbing headache
  • High body temperature
  • Confusion/dizziness
  • Slurred speech

Heat stroke requires immediate medical help. If you or someone is presenting with any of these symptoms call 911 right away. Get them to a cooler spot (shade is better than sun, air conditioning is better than outside). Try to lower the person’s temperature.

  • Loosen clothing.
  • Soak their clothes with water.
  • Place ice at the person’s armpits, neck, and groin.
  • Fan their body either with an electric fan or manually.
  • Cold Compresses

DO NOT give a person suffering from heat stroke anything to drink. If the person is conscious enough to follow commands, they may be suffering from heat exhaustion but proceed on the side of caution.

While dehydration is more frequent during summer it is something that can occur year around because it has other causes then heat. Dehydration occurs when you lose more fluid than you take in, and your body doesn't have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions. If you don't replace lost fluids, you may get dehydrated. Besides excessive sweating other causes of dehydration include intense diarrhea, vomiting or a high fever.

Thirst is not a great indicator of dehydration because by the time you feel thirsty, you might already be dehydrated.  Some other symptoms that are indicators of dehydration include:

  • Feeling dizzy and lightheaded
  • Having a dry or sticky mouth
  • Producing less urine and/or darker urine. When your urine is clear it is a good sign you are properly hydrated.

There are precautions that can help protect you against the adverse effects of heat related illnesses. These include:

  • Keep yourself well hydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during and after an outdoor activity. A good rule of thumb is to drink water or other fluids every 15 – 20 minutes.
  • Wear lightweight, loose fitting and light colored clothes.
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Schedule physically demanding outdoor activities for cooler times during the day. Typically before 10 AM or after 6 PM.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a hat or using an umbrella. 

Certain medications can put you at greater risk of experiencing heatstroke because they affect the way your body reacts to heat. Here are some to be aware of:

  • Allergy medications that contain antihistamines
  • Diet pills
  • Laxatives
  • Some psychiatric medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers.
  • Certain blood pressure medications.
  • Seizure medications

A special note to athletes who use energy drinks to boost their performance. The main ingredient in most of these energy drinks is high amounts of caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it causes the kidneys to remove extra fluid through urinating. That leaves less fluid in the body. So drinking an energy drink while you're exercising can be particularly dangerous. The combination of the diuretic effect and sweating can cause severe dehydration making you more susceptible to any of the above conditions.

Enjoy the summer, but beat the heat!