Nina Radcliff

The warm months are a great time to get outside and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. But as temperatures rise, it is important to brush-up on understandings and tips to prevent heat-related illnesses. Experts agree that, generally, heat-related illnesses can strike anyone of any age. However, the elderly, those on certain medications, and children under 4 are at an even greater risk.

Dr. Nina's What You Need To Know About Heat-Related Illnesses.

What are heat cramps?

The mildest form of heat illness, where the muscles in our calves, arms, and abdomen spasm/cramp due to profuse sweating. Sweating causes us to lose sodium, potassium, and magnesium as well as water. The cramps are painful and involuntary.

If you experience this, it is important to retreat to a shady or cool area, drink water or other cool beverages, and rest several hours before exertion.

What is heat exhaustion?

If left untreated, heat cramps can progress to heat exhaustion. This is a condition where we experience weakness, nausea, vomiting, and headaches along with muscle cramps and profuse sweating.

If you are experiencing heat exhaustion, move to a cooler place, lie down, and loosen your clothing. You can work to decrease your internal temperature by applying cool, wet cloths, ice packs or compresses to as much of your body as possible and sipping cool or chilled beverages. If vomiting continues, seek medical attention.

What is heat stroke?

If left untreated, heat exhaustion can become a medical emergency called heat stroke. This occurs when our body's temperature regulation becomes overwhelmed and starts to fail. In other words, our ability to cool down can no longer keep up. Heat stroke is typically seen when temperatures rise to 104 degree Fahrenheit or higher. Our body is forced to divert blood from the internal organs to the arms and legs in a last ditch effort to dissipate heat. But in doing so, it can shut down our internal organs.

As we become more dehydrated from sweating (sweat facilitates the transfer of heat out of our body into the environment), our blood pressure begins to drop. To compensate, the heart starts beating faster in order to deliver an adequate amount of oxygen and nutrients to our heart and brain. Eventually, the heart starts to give out and can no longer meet the needs of our organs. Altered mental status, seizures, and a coma can result. Death often occurs when the body's internal temperature reaches 108 degrees.

Again, this is a medical emergency - call 911 immediately! And while waiting for help, move the person to a cooler environment and apply cool cloths or immerse them in a cool bath. Because they may be confused or may experience a seizure or coma, do not give them fluids to drink. They may aspirate it - the medical term for food, drink, or other objects invading the lungs. This, in and of itself, can be deadly.

What are causes of heat-related illnesses?

  • Exposure to a hot environment, such as being inside a car or a poorly ventilated, non-air-conditioned space.
  • Strenuous activity.

What are risk factors for heat related illnesses?

  • Age. Children's central nervous system is not fully developed. In older adults, the central nervous system begins to deteriorate, making the body less capable of coping with body temperature changes. Both groups also may have a difficult time remaining hydrated, or sensing that they need hydration.
  • Wearing heavy clothing, which prevents sweat from evaporating easily and cooling the body.
  • Drinking alcohol. This affects the body's ability to regulate its temperature and also increases urination, which contributes to dehydration.
  • Certain medications, such as Beta blockers, diuretics, and some antidepressants, as well as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs.
  • Certain health conditions, such as heart and lung disease
  • Activities. Whether you're working or playing, being active or exercising in the heat poses real threats that can progress quickly.

How can I prevent heat-related illnesses?

  • Stay cool. The shade, a fan, and air-conditioning are our allies when it comes to fending off heat-related illnesses. Additionally, spritzing water on our body or taking a cool shower or bath can help dissipate heat.
  • Drink plenty of fluids when temperatures rise and before, during, and after physical activity. While the amount of fluid we lose from sweat varies depending on the temperature, type of physical activity and our genetics, it can be more than you think. For instance, the average adult loses 0.8 to 1.4 liters of fluid during every hour of exercise. Additionally, electrolytes are lost, so it may help to reach for a rehydration drink or fruit juice to replenish these.
  • Avoid strenuous activity in hot, humid weather.
  • Avoid sunburn because burnt skin does not sweat properly and can prevent our body's ability to cool itself.
  • Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day, typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing to allow the body to sweat and dissipate heat.

Keep an eye on yourself and those with you this summer. If you experience any of these signs and do not start feeling better with rest and cooling off, call a health care provider for help. Remember, early signs are easier to treat than waiting until the illness gets worse.

An alarming statistic is that heat stroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children. Never leave anyone - child, adult or pet - inside a car unattended, even for a moment. Due to the "greenhouse warming effect," temperatures inside a car can skyrocket by as much as 20 degrees in as little as 10 minutes. The sun's radiation enters the car as heat, and is trapped by the glass. It is also absorbed by the materials in the car - the seats, the dashboard, the carpets - and all these materials re-radiate the heat. Even on cooler days, we can see a rapid escalation.

From running to working to playing outdoors, the heat can be risky for your health. Even short periods in high temperatures can cause health problems that range from minor to life threatening. Following these tips along with taking precautionary measures will help you and yours stay safe this summer.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Radcliff has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.

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