Helpful tips on how to prevent and treat heat-related injuries

  • Published
  • By Maj. Earnest Fry
  • 55th Medical Group
Warm weather and outdoor activity go hand in hand. However, it is important for people to take action to avoid the severe health problems often associated with hot weather.

Regardless of extreme weather conditions, the healthy human body can do an amazing job of keeping a steady temperature near 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In hot weather or during vigorous activity, the body perspires. As this perspiration evaporates from the skin, the body is cooled. If challenged by long periods of intense heat, the body may lose its ability to respond efficiently. When this occurs, a person may experience hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is the general name given to a variety of heat-related illnesses. In other words, hyperthermia occurs when body metabolic heat production or environmental heat load exceeds normal heat loss capacity or when there is impaired heat loss.

The temperature does not have to hit 100 degrees for a person to be at risk. Both your general health and lifestyle may increase a person's chance of suffering a heat-related illness.

Health factors that increase risk
· Poor circulation

· Inefficient sweat glands and changes in the skin caused by the normal aging process

· Heart, lung and kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever

· Other factors include being substantially overweight or underweight

· Drinking alcoholic beverages can impair the body's ability to respond to the increased heat

Lifestyle factors that can increase risk
· Unbearably hot living quarters

· Lack of transportation - which prevents people from seeking respite from the heat in shopping malls, movie theaters and libraries

· Overdressing - because they may not feel the heat, older people may not dress appropriately in hot weather

· Visiting overcrowded places - trips should be scheduled during non-rush hour times

· Not understanding weather conditions - people at risk should stay indoors and air-conditioned on hot days

The two most common forms of hyperthermia that you must be concerned with are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is a warning that the body is getting too hot. The person may be thirsty, giddy, weak, uncoordinated, nauseated or sweating profusely. The body temperature is normal and the pulse is normal or raised. The skin is cold and clammy.

Heat stroke can be life-threatening and victims can die. A person with heat stroke usually has a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Other symptoms include confusion, combativeness, bizarre behavior, fainting, staggering, strong and rapid pulse, possible delirium or coma. High body temperatures can produce irreversible brain damage.

If you are exhibiting signs of heat stroke, emergency assistance should be sought immediately. Without medical attention, heat stroke can be deadly.

Your primary care manager will diagnose your heat-related injury by doing an in-depth medical history including symptoms and a physical exam.

Prevention of hyperthermia is relatively straightforward. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a few simple steps to avoid these preventable illnesses:

· Drink fluids frequently. Don't wait until you are thirsty to drink. Remember to consume non-alcoholic, low-sugar drinks in hot weather.

· Replace salt and minerals. Heavy sweating from increased temperatures can deplete your body's salt and minerals. Non-alcoholic drinks, like sports drinks, can help you replenish these reserves.

· Wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen. Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, as well as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection. Wear SPF 15 or higher sunscreen every day.

· Schedule outdoor activities carefully. Try to limit outdoor activity to morning and evening hours with rest breaks in shady areas, if available.

· Pace yourself. If you are unaccustomed to working or exercising in a hot environment, start slowly and increase effort gradually. If your heart is pounding or you are gasping for breath, stop the activity and rest in a cool, shady area.

· Stay cool indoors. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the mall or library to cool off. Taking cool showers or baths, as well as keeping your stove and oven off, are other ways to cool down inside.

· Use the buddy system. Partner with a friend and watch for signs of heat-related illness in each other. Senior citizens are more susceptible. If you are over 65, ask a friend to check on you over the phone twice a day. If you know someone in this age group, remember to check on them at least twice a day.

· Monitor those at high risk. Infants and children under 4 years of age, people over 65, people who are overweight, those who overexert themselves during work or exercise and people who are physically ill especially those who have heart disease or high blood pressure, take certain medication, or suffer from insomnia, depression or poor circulation are particularly at risk.

· Call for immediate medical assistance if you believe you or another person is experiencing heat stroke. While waiting on emergency assistance, get the victim to a shady area, cool them rapidly using cool water, monitor body temperature until it reaches 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and do not give the victim any fluids to drink.

Summer time is fun time; however, in high temperatures, fun holds hands with danger. So do your part to take care of yourself and others.