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This Summer, Could You Spot the Signs of Heat Illness?
  • Posted June 17, 2023

This Summer, Could You Spot the Signs of Heat Illness?

Heat illness can be deadly, so it's essential to recognize the warning signs and know what to do as the summer season gets into gear.

“Heat illness tends to happen when the body is unable to regulate its temperature due to overexertion or extended periods of time in high temperatures,” said Dr. Maria Carmenza Mejia, an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“Conditions can range from mild discomfort to life threatening," she said in a college news release.

Meija offered some information about heat illness and tips for avoiding or treating it.

The first sign of heat illness tends to be cramps and spasms due to dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance. This can progress to heat exhaustion, in which a person experiences fever, heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, headache or nausea.

It is also possible to experience heat syncope, an episode of fainting or dizziness. This can be triggered by a decreased blood flow to the brain due to standing for long periods in high heat or from quickly rising from the sitting or lying position when it's hot.

Heat exhaustion can progress to life-threatening heat stroke, if the body is no longer able to cool down. Body temperature rises rapidly above 104 degrees F, and a person with heat stroke may have seizures or lose consciousness and quickly experience damage to the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles.

Heat stroke requires immediate emergency intervention.

To keep heat illness from progressing all the way to heat stroke, Mejia said it is important to stop any physical activity as soon as you experience the initial heat cramps.

Move to a cool place inside and with air conditioning, if possible.

Fan the skin to cool it down and begin to hydrate.

If you suspect someone is experiencing heat exhaustion, move them to a cool place and try to bring the body temperature down, Mejia recommends.

If the person may be experiencing heat stroke and can't keep fluids down, call 911. Place ice packs in the person's armpit, groin, neck and back areas while waiting for paramedics.

Take these steps to protect against heat illness when spending time outdoors, Mejia suggested:

  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting and light-colored clothing.
  • Drink lots of water. It is possible to be dehydrated even if you are not thirsty.
  • Choose electrolyte drinks or solutions low in sugar, such as sports drinks or powder-based electrolyte additives to keep your electrolytes up.
  • Try to plan outdoor activities when temperatures are cooler, during the morning and evening.
  • Take a break every 15 to 20 minutes, getting out of the sun and heat.
  • Wear sunscreen -- having sunburned skin can impair the body's ability to cool itself.
  • Use the buddy system in case you encounter heat illness if working outside.

“Children, elderly individuals and those with chronic conditions that hinder the body's ability to cool itself are at a higher risk of heat illness,” Mejia said. “Children spending lots of time in the sun also may experience heat rash, which happens when sweat ducts get clogged and small bumps or blisters form. Treat this by keeping the affected area dry, cool and undisturbed. If you are 65 years of age or older, have a friend or relative call to check on you twice a day during a heat wave.”

Mejia also urged communities to provide safe environments for people to enjoy outdoor activities in the summer, including parks and outdoor spaces with lots of shade, as well as cooling centers to assist families without access to consistent air conditioning.

Be aware of reports on air quality, pollution and ozone levels as they can provide information for people with respiratory issues.

“Access to these kinds of environments and resources can reduce the amount of heat-related illnesses, so it's important for people to be aware of these things to stay safe and healthy in hotter months,” Mejia said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on heat-related illness.

SOURCE: Baylor College of Medicine, news release, June 8, 2023

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