This summer much of the US is experiencing a heat wave. All the way from South Dakota to the eastern seaboard, we have been experiencing record breaking and potentially dangerous temperatures.
The good news is that heat-related illness and death is completely preventable. In general, according to the CDC about almost 6,000 people a year are seen in ER for heat-related injury.
The way we regulate our body temperature in hot conditions is by sweating, which, as it evaporates cools our bodies. But on very hot muggy summer days, the humidity in the air prevents this from working effectively. When this mechanism doesn’t work properly we start to experience heat-related injury and illness
Heat illness is a spectrum that goes from heat exhaustion to the life threatening condition called heat stroke. The warning signs of heat related illness are cool, sweaty, moist skin with goose bumps in the heat, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps with nausea and vomiting.
When you notice any neurological changes such as confusion, hallucinations, seizures or the person becomes unconscious and lapse into a coma that is the life-threatening emergency called heat stroke. You need to call 911 right away.
Myth 1: Heat injury can only occur at high temperatures
It does not have to be extremely hot environmental temperature for you to be at risk for heat stroke. Certain medications and medical conditions, as well as dehydrations can put you at risk even at lower temperatures. If you are dehydrated from the stomach flu or a fever or if you drink too much alcohol you can be more at risk for heat injury and heat stroke. People on certain types of medications can be more at risk, such as diuretics with cause you to urinate a lot can increase your risk of dehydration and put you at risk, neuroleptic medication used to treat seizures, anticholinergic medications used to treat spastic bladder syndrome and phenothiazine or anti psychotic medications both can increase your metabolism and put you at risk. People with certain medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease or if you are very overweight or obese as well as the very young babies and the very elderly are more at risk. Also certain professions who are forced to work and not able to get out of the elements are also more at risk, military recruits, road crews, athletes who train out side in summer such as football player are all at risk.
Myth 2: You can tell if you getting close to heat stroke
A person cannot tell if they are getting sick or in severe trouble for heat illness and heat stroke. In fact they are the last to know. Once you are in the throes of heat stroke, you are mentally compromised. Not only are you incapable of helping yourself, you are often unaware of what is going on. In fact if you notice someone else who is acting confused and stumbling in the heat that is the heat emergency you need to call 911 and get them out of the elements and cooled down quickly.
Myth 3: Fans can prevent heat illness
Fanning alone especially in humid conditions will not for cool you down enough if you are truly at risk for heart stroke. You need to get into a cooled air-conditioned facility especially the elderly who might live in a home without air-conditioning or during a power outage.
Myth 4: There is no difference between dry or humid heat
Actually dry heat is a little better than humid heat. It allows better evaporative heat loss during sweating to cool your body temperature. However, if you are sweating a lot even in dry heat that may put you at risk for dehydration which ultimately can still lead to heat stroke.
Myth 5: It doesn’t matter which part of the country you live
Actually Southerners fair better during heat waves than Northerners. People who live or spend a lot of time in warmer climate acclimatize and develop more efficient heat regulation mechanisms. That is why you hear of more people dying during heat waves in the northern cities.
- Drink plenty of fluids and if you are sweating a lot consider sports drinks to replace the salts and minerals.
- Use sunscreen and wear loose light colored clothing, as well as a brimmed hat.
- Try to limit your outdoor activities midday, which is the hottest part of the day.
- Pace yourself, if you are exercising in the heat you should not allow your heart to be pounding nor should you allow yourself to feel completely out of breath and gasping for air.
- If you suspect someone is acting like they might have heat stroke, call 911 get them to shade or air conditioning try to cool them rapidly sponge with cool (not ice) water, wet towel or sheet and fan them