Avoid heat-related illness while enjoying summer weather

The elderly, children under the age of four, obese individuals and those who are ill or taking certain medications are most at risk for heat-related illness.

As the heat index rises, it becomes more difficult for the body’s temperature control system to adjust. Normally, your body cools itself by sweating. During extremely hot weather, your body temperature may rise faster than can be controlled by sweating. In fact, if humidity is also high, any sweat that does occur will not evaporate as quickly which in turn causes the body to release heat at a much slower rate. This can result in a dangerously high body temperature that can damage your brain or other vital organs and even cause death if emergency measures are not taken quickly.

While a healthy person may be able to handle hot weather without serious consequences, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are certain individuals whose bodies have a more limited ability to regulate temperature. The CDC’s website offers a great deal of valuable information for dealing with extreme heat weather. Of note, is the fact that extreme heat causes more deaths annually than those caused by hurricanes, lightning, tornados, earthquakes and floods combined.

FEMA’s Ready.gov offers guidelines to prepare your home and family well in advance of extreme heat events, useful tips for enduring the hot weather once it arrives, and links to several websites with related information.

In addition to the elderly and very young children, those suffering from heart disease, poor circulation, mental illness, dehydration, fever, and obesity are more vulnerable to heat illness. Using alcohol or certain prescription drugs can increase one’s risk as can being sunburned. As well as being painful, you may not realize that sunburn affects your body’s ability to cool itself and also causes a loss of body fluids.

Many organizations including AARP advise that you check daily on elderly relatives and neighbors, especially those living alone, during extreme heat waves. Not only do their bodies not adjust well to sudden changes in temperature, many senior citizens have chronic medical conditions or take prescription drugs that interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Diuretics, tranquilizers, Parkinson medications, and psychotropic drugs have all been known to do so.

If on a limited income, senior citizens may not be able to afford having air conditioning installed in their homes and those who do have air conditioning may avoid using it to keep utility costs lower.

AARP offers a free online toolkit “Help Someone Stay Cool During Extreme Heat”. FEMA recommends checking with your local government for the location of “cooling stations” in your area where senior citizens can be taken during extreme heat weather. CDC suggests visiting an air-conditioned mall or public library for a few hours each day as air-conditioning has been found to be the strongest protective factor against heat-related illness.

There are several categories of heat-related illness with distinct symptoms and recommended treatment steps. Learn to recognize the symptoms associated with each type of illness and the steps you should take in treating someone suffering from that condition.

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The most severe of heat emergencies is heat stroke. Those experiencing heat stroke may have some or all of the following symptoms: body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, a throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, irrational behavior, a rapid pulse, skin that is red, hot and dry (i.e., no sweating), rapid and shallow breathing, seizures and unconsciousness.

Having any of these symptoms can be life-threatening. It is advised that 911 is called immediately and while waiting for their arrival, take action to begin cooling the affected person while monitoring their temperature. Have them lie down in a cool or shady place with their feet elevated about 12 inches. Cool them rapidly with whatever means are available including applying cool, wet cloths, spraying the person with cool water from a garden hose, placing the person in a tub of cool water or a cool shower. Cold compresses on the person’s neck, groin, and armpits as well as using a fan can help lower their body temperature.

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of a heat-related illness that needs to be treated quickly so that it does not progress to heat stroke. Those who are working or exercising in a hot environment may develop heat exhaustion after several days of exposure to high temperature especially if body fluids lost have not be replaced adequately.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include profuse sweating, paleness, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps, fainting, nausea and even vomiting. Unlike heat stroke, the skin may be cool and moist.

To cool your body during heat exhaustion, drink nonalcoholic beverages, wear lightweight clothing, get to an air-conditioned location, rest and take a cool shower, bath, or sponge bath.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health offers information about treating heat emergencies on their MedlinePlus webpage. If someone is suffering a heat-related illness, they caution against giving them salt tablets, fever medication such as aspirin or acetaminophen, liquids containing alcohol or caffeine, and discourage using alcohol rubs on the person’s skin.

Some individuals may suffer heat cramps, a less serious but often painful reaction experienced when exercising strenuously in hot weather. These muscle pains or spasms usually occur in the abdomen, arms, or legs. Excessive sweating during strenuous activity can make one prone to heat cramps as the body’s salt and moisture levels are depleted. To treat heat cramps, immediately stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place. Drink clear juice or a sport beverage to re-hydrate and replenish your body’s salt level. It is advised that you do not resume strenuous activity for several hours after the cramps diminish to avoid escalating to a more dangerous state of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If you have heart problems, are on a low-sodium diet or your heat cramps do not subside in one hour after taking the recommended measure, please seek medical attention.

Another minor heat-related illness that is most commonly often found in very young children is heat rash. Excessive sweating during hot, humid weather can irritate the skin. The rash often appears on the neck, upper chest, groin, and elbow creases. Keeping the affected area dry, and providing a cooler, less humid environment will soon resolve the condition.

Be sure to check the Michigan State University Extension website for additional information about maintaining good health during hot weather. Even pets and livestock can be affected by extreme heat and may need special considerations. Another excellent resource for dealing with extreme heat is Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN).

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