by Barry M. Rosenthal, MD, MPH, Chairman, Department of Emergency Medicine
As we enter the summer season, it is impor- tant to be mindful of the potential for heat-related illness. Although preventable, many heat-related illnesses, including deaths, occur annually. Older adults, infants and children, and individuals with chronic med- ical conditions are particularly susceptible. However, even young and healthy individu- als can succumb to the heat if one does not take appropriate precautions.
Heat-related illness occurs when the body is unable to compensate for the heat and properly cool itself. Normally the body cools by sweating. Under some conditions, such as high humidity, sweat does not evap- orate as quickly as normal, preventing the body from adequately releasing heat. In such cases, body temperature can rise rapidly. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.
Heat exposure can cause a spectrum of illness including:
Heat rash (“prickly heat”)
Heat edema (swelling) of the feet or hands
Heat syncope (fainting)
Heat stroke – this is a medical emergency. Even with immediate treatment, it can be life threatening or cause serious long-term problems. Call 911!
The best defense against heat-related illness is prevention. Staying cool, drinking plenty of fluids, wearing cool clothing and monitoring outdoor activities are keys to staying healthy in hot weather. Following are some prevention tips:
Seek a cooler place. Being in an air- conditioned building, even for just a few hours, is one of the best ways to prevent heat-related illness. If your home doesn’t have an air conditioner, consider spend- ing time at a library or shopping mall.
Avoid hot spots. On a hot day, the temperature in your parked car can rise 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. Let your car cool off before you drive it. Never leave children, the elderly, or anyone else in a parked car in hot weather (including pets).
Wear loose fitting, lightweight, light- colored clothing. Heavy, dark or tight clothing holds in heat, and inhibits sweat evaporation, which results in inadequate body cooling. Do not dress infants in heavy clothing or wrap them in blankets.
Avoid sunburn. If you’re going to be outdoors, protect yourself from direct sun exposure with a hat or umbrella, and apply sunscreen to any exposed skin. Use at minimum SPF15 with UVA/UVB protection (the most effec- tive products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels).
Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated will help your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature. Don't wait until you’re thirsty to drink. During heavy exercise in a hot environment, drink two to four glasses (16-32 ounces) of cool fluids each hour. If your doctor has told you to limit fluids because of a health condition, be sure to check with him or her about how much extra you need to drink when the temperature rises. Avoid alcoholic beverages, as well as those with caffeine or high sugar content.
Take extra precautions with certain medications. Ask your doctor or phar- macist whether the medications you take make you more susceptible to heat exhaustion and, if so, what you can do to keep your body from overheating. In particular, diuretics (“water pills”) may be problematic.
Stay informed. Listen to local news and weather channels or contact your local public health department during extreme heat conditions for health and safety updates.
Check on those who may need help. Your elderly loved ones or neighbors may need help. Remember, the elderly are particularly susceptible to heat- related illness.
Plan times of outdoor activity. If possible, plan strenuous outdoor activity and exercise for early morning or late evening when the temperature is lower.
Be aware of signs and symptoms. At first signs of heat illness – dizziness, nausea, headaches, muscle cramps – move to a cooler place, rest a few min- utes, then slowly drink a cool beverage. Seek medical attention immediately if conditions do not improve.
Summer is a time to enjoy the sun and warm temperatures, but in the event of a heat-related illness, have full confidence that Winthrop’s Emergency Department is here for you!