When summertime temperatures increase, it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a heat-related illness and know what to do to avoid serious problems.
Each year, more than 600 people are killed in extreme hot weather, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Young children and older adults are at most risk for a heat-related illness but anyone can get it.
“Normally, your body keeps cool by sweating but certain factors may interfere with your natural cooling system, including age, obesity, dehydration, heart disease and use of alcohol or drugs,” says Mohammed Shaker, MD, an internal medicine physician and geriatrician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo.
“If you cannot sweat enough to cool your body and your body temperature gets too high, it’s important to seek medical help right away to reduce the risk of damage to your brain or vital organs.”
Two of the most common heat-related illnesses are heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It happens when your body cannot control its rising temperature. You lose the ability to sweat as your temperature skyrockets. Body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes.
“Heat stroke can come on very suddenly, and without immediate medical treatment, heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability,” says Dr. Shaker.
Heat stroke symptoms may include:
- High body temperature (above 103°F)
- Loss of consciousness
- Dizziness, nausea and confusion
- Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
- Rapid pulse
- Throbbing headache
Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness. It occurs when the body sweats profusely, resulting in dangerous losses of water and salt. Older people, athletes and workers who are exposed to very hot weather are most at risk.
Heat exhaustion symptoms may include:
- Heavy sweating
- Muscle cramps
- Weakness or dizziness
- Headache, nausea or vomiting
- Pale and clammy skin
- Fast, weak pulse
“If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress into heat stroke, so it is important to be aware,” says Dr. Shaker.
Immediate medical attention is a must for both heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Call 9-1-1, get the person out of the sun, and help him or her cool down with cool water from a tub, shower, hose or sponge.
If possible, wrap a cool, wet towel around the victim until help arrives. If medical help is delayed, call the hospital emergency room for additional instructions. It’s okay to give non-alcoholic fluids as long as the victim’s muscles are not twitching. If vomiting occurs, turn the person to the side to keep the airway open.
Prevention is the best defense against heat-related illness.
Staying cool and making simple changes in your fluid intake, activities and clothing during hot weather can help keep you safe and healthy.
Stay hydrated. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids when temperatures are high, especially if you are active. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink — by that time, you are already slightly dehydrated. Aim for 16-32 ounces of cool fluids each hour.
Water is your best choice; avoid alcohol, caffeine or very cold drinks, which can have a dehydrating effect and may cause stomach cramps. If you are on a fluid-restricted diet or take diuretics, consult with your doctor before increasing fluids, especially if you are over age 65.
If you sweat heavily and/or exercise for more than 45 minutes, consider drinking a sports beverage or fruit juice to replace water and electrolytes or minerals that your body loses from profuse sweating. Most sports drinks also contain carbs.
If you are on a low-salt diet, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic conditions, talk with your doctor about the best options.
Dress for the weather, even when at home. Lightweight, loose-fitting clothing lets your skin breathe. Dark colors absorb heat, so stick with lighter shades.
If you go outside, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going out and reapply as recommended on the package.
Sunscreen helps prevent sunburns, which can increase your skin temperature and make it harder to stay cool. Sunscreen also helps reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.
A wide-brimmed hat helps to keep your head cool in the hot sun.
Minimize your time outdoors on hot days. Plan outdoor activities in the early morning or evening, avoiding the hottest times of the day. Sun rays are strongest between 10 am and 2 pm.
Be aware of how you are feeling. If you have problems breathing, feel lightheaded or nauseated, develop a headache or feel your heart pounding, find a cool area and rest.
Stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, try a shopping center, movie theater or public library.
At home, electric fans can provide comfort but cannot prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath may be a better way to cool off. Reducing your use of the oven or stove also helps keep things cool at home.
Arrange to have someone check on you throughout the day if you are 65 years of age or older or have risk factors, such as obesity or heart disease. Likewise, if you know someone who is at higher risk, check on them.
Animals are at risk of heat-related illness too, so don’t forget about your pets. Provide plenty of water and shade outdoors, and consider wetting the animal down when temperatures soar.