With temperatures climbing, and hot, sunny days upon us, it’s important to understand the dangers of summer heat waves and how to protect yourself and your family — especially children and older people — from heat-related illnesses and injuries.
“Normally, your body keeps itself cool by sweating. However, some factors may interfere with your natural cooling system, such as 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 your body temperature gets too high, you risk damage to your brain or vital organs.”
Two of the most common heat-related problems are heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Heat stroke results when your body cannot control its rising temperature.
You lose the ability to sweat as your temperature skyrockets, often to 106°F or higher. “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:
- An extremely high body temperature (above 103°F)
- Loss of consciousness
- Dizziness, nausea and confusion
- Red, hot and dry skin without sweating
- Rapid pulse
- Throbbing headache
Heat exhaustion 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 skin
“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.
Your best defense against heat-related illness? Prevention. Staying cool and making simple changes in your fluid intake, activities and clothing during hot weather can help keep you safe and healthy.
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, add sports drinks or fruit juice to your fluid intake. These replace the salt and minerals your body loses from profuse sweating and are important for keeping you hydrated and cool. If you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your doctor about the best options.
Dress for the weather. Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that lets your skin breathe. Dark colors absorb heat, so stick with lighter shades. Minimize your time outdoors on hot days and avoid sun exposure, especially between 10 am and 2 pm when the rays are strongest. Wear a wide-brimmed hat in the sun to keep your head cool, and use plenty of sunscreen to avoid sunburn, which can increase your skin temperature and make it harder to stay cool.
Plan outdoor activities in the early morning or evening, avoiding the hottest times of day. 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.
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.