Heat-related illnesses are a legitimate concern during the summer season. Not only do they delay lives but they are also a major cause for hospitalization each year. The Center for Disease Control reports that over 600 people die each year from extreme heat-related conditions. Heat-related illnesses occur when one has an abundance of heat or humidity exposure with little to no hydration or cool air by either hot weather or direct sun exposure. Those most susceptible to heat-related illnesses typically live in hot climates and may be very physically active in the summertime.
Children and teens are more at risk due to the way their bodies process heat. Because they do not sweat the way grown adults do, they are less efficient at cooling themselves down. When the body temperature rises too high and too quickly, risks such as brain damage and damage to other vital organs may occur. Additionally, children do not tend to feel as thirsty as adults do when in need of water. Because children are so active between play and sports activities, it is important that parents and caretakers are aware of heat-related illness symptoms and the precautions that help to avoid them altogether. This does not mark all adults safe from danger. Adults who are overweight, on certain medications or who have been drinking alcohol are also very susceptible to heat illnesses as well.
These emergencies can happen in two different ways. One, exertional heat illness happens when overexerting oneself physically in a hot environment. The second way is non-exertional heat illness happening when one is trapped inside of a hot environment. For instance, this can occur when camping in very hot weather with little shade and no air conditioning or a child who is left inside of a vehicle on a hot day. Check out these four common types of heat-related illnesses and how to avoid them.
1. Heat Rash
A heat rash is not life-threatening but can be very uncomfortable. It occurs when the skin becomes irritated during hot and humid weather. Anyone can endure a heat rash but it is most common in young children. It can appear in red, pimple-like bumps or blisters on the chest, neck, groin and elbow creases. The only way to avoid this type of heat-related illness is to stay in cooler temperatures indoors and keep the skin areas dry. Dusting powder can be helpful for comfort and to keep the skin from moisture.
2. Heat Cramps
These are the mildest form of heat-related illness and can be resolved fairly easily. Symptoms consist of muscle cramps and spasms either during or after strenuous activity and sweating excessively in hot temperatures. This happens due to the imbalance and loss of salt in the body from excessive sweating. The skin may be flushed and moist. If this occurs, it is important to move to a cool place out of direct sunlight and take some time to rest. Discontinue physical activity. You can cool down by removing clothing and placing wet cloths over the body. Have a cool drink that contains salt and sugar which will help balance electrolytes and restore some hydration. Sports drinks are best if available. To help sore muscles, slow and gentle massaging and stretching is best.
3. Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is more intense than heat cramps and marked by some more concerning symptoms. You may feel muscle cramps and also have pale and most skin as well. In addition to this, there is typically a fever above 100.4 forming alongside some nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, paleness, headache, weakness, fatigue, feeling faint and even anxious feelings. Not all symptoms have to be present to have heat exhaustion. It is important to get to a cool place right away. Let your body rest and remove any clothing possible and cover the body in cool, wet cloths. A sports drink is advisable and even a trip to the emergency room if symptoms do not ease up quickly, you may need fluids through an IV catheter to rehydrate. People who work in outdoor environments and hot temperatures are typically vulnerable to this type of heat illness.
4. Heat Stroke
Heatstroke is the most severe and life-threatening form of heat-related illness. The skin will feel warm and dry to the touch with no sweat indicating dehydration. A high fever above 104 degrees is common. Other symptoms consist of a rapid heart rate, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, fatigue, lethargy, throbbing headache, confusion, stupor, agitation, seizures, coma, and even possible death. If any of these symptoms occur, move to a cool place and rest. Call or have someone call 911. This is a medical emergency and needs to be addressed by medical professionals quickly. While waiting for medical attention, remove clothing and pour cool water over the body and fan the skin. If ice is available, place ice bags under armpits and groin area to bring down the temperature. If able to drink, consume fluids. Heatstroke can cause brain damage, liver and kidney damage, permanent disabilities and even death.
Heat-related illnesses can go from mild to severe in a short period. To help avoid overheating during the summer months, here are some tips.
- Drink plenty of fluids when outdoors and more so on extremely hot days
- Drink water and sports drinks with electrolytes, avoiding alcohol and caffeine to stay as hydrated as possible.
- Avoid physical endurance on hot days when possible or take breaks often to cool down and hydrate in a shady area
- Wear cool, breathable and light-colored clothing
- For every 15 minutes of physical activity, one cup of water should be consumed.
- Allow yourself time to warm up before and cool down after physical activities
- Wear loosely fitted clothing avoiding materials that hold heat
- Avoid being outdoors for long during high heat and humid days
- If you do not have air conditioning, use a public location that does
- Call your local health department to find heat-relief shelters
- Take a cool bath or shower
- When indoors, avoid using the stove
- Exercise and take walks early in the morning and later in the evening when the temperature is cooler
- Wear sunscreen to avoid sunburns which make it hard for the body to cool down
- Do NOT leave children, pets or elderly in cars on a hot day, even with the window cracked
- Avoid hot and heavy foods and beverages
Parents and caretakers should take high caution with babies, young children and teens to ensure that they are drinking enough fluids and taking adequate time to rest outside of the heat. Those who take medications for blood pressure, insomnia, depression, circulation related needs or diabetes are even more prone to heat-related illnesses. These risks are avoidable and with a little caution can be avoided completely.
When spending extra time outdoors this summer, keep these precautions and warning signs in mind. During long days outdoors, it is best to have a buddy system for people to check in with one another to make sure they are remembering to hydrate and take some downtime. Pre-pack extra water and sports drinks in a cooler on extra hot days. Use the ice packs from the cooler to cool off from time to time. When on vacation or camping, set a “cool-down” time each day that requires everyone to meet in a spot, relax, hydrate and cool off for 30-60 minutes at a time. It may kill some outdoor time but it will keep everyone safe and able to enjoy the rest of the day together. Remember, hydrate often, cool down and take it easy!