As summer temperatures begin to rise, taking steps to protect yourself from heat illnesses is essential.
What Causes Heat Illnesses?
Heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke and cramps happen when your body can’t keep itself cool. As the temperature rises, your body produces sweat to stay cool. On hot, humid days, the increased moisture in the air slows down this process.
But air temperature isn't the only factor. Humidity can play a role in how your body cools. The heat index measures the air temperature plus the effects of humidity. If the temperature is 90 degrees, for instance, and the relative humidity is 70%, the air feels as though it’s 106 degrees. A heat index of 90°F or higher calls for extreme caution. High humidity makes it harder for sweat to evaporate from the body. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures increases your risk of heat-related illnesses.
When your body can’t cool, your body temperature rises and you can become ill.
How Your Body Reacts to High Temperatures
There are 3 main reactions a body can have to hot temperatures and heat waves: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat illness and consist of painful muscle cramps and spasms that occur during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat.
Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps and results from a loss of water and salt in the body. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is unable to cool itself properly and occurs in conditions of extreme heat and excessive sweating without adequate fluid and salt replacement. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke, the most severe form of heat illness, happens when the body's heat-regulating system is overwhelmed by excessive heat. Heat stroke, also called a sun stroke, is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention. Call 911 and try to cool the outside of the body until help arrives.
Risk Factors For Heat Illness
Your health conditions and daily activity can impact your risk of developing heat illness. Risk factors for heat illness include:
- Lack of water consumption
- Use of alcohol
- Caffeine consumption
- Physical condition
- Heart, lung, and kidney diseases
- High blood pressure
- Age (the very young or old). Older adults are more susceptible to heat-related illness, may have memory issues, have underlying medical conditions or may not have a working air conditioner.
- Being overweight or underweight
Heat Exhaustion or Heat Stroke?
The symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke are similar. Here's how to tell the difference and what to do for first aid.
Heat exhaustion symptoms
- Heavy sweating
- Cold, pale, and clammy skin
- Fast, weak pulse
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- Tiredness or weakness
- Fainting (passing out)
If you are experiencing any of these heat exhaustion symptoms you should:
- Move to a cool place
- Loosen your clothes
- Put cool, wet cloths on your body or take a cool bath
- Sip water
Heat stroke symptoms
- High body temperature
- Hot, red, dry or damp skin
- Fast, strong pulse
- Losing consciousness
If you are experiencing any of these heat stroke symptoms you should:
- Call 911 immediately.
- Move the person to a cool place.
- Help lower the person’s body temperature with cool cloths or a cool bath.
- Do not give the person anything to drink.
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Reduce Risk Of Heat Stroke
The key to avoiding heat illnesses is prevention, said according to Stevan A. Vuckovic, DO, an emergency medicine physician at Franciscan Health Munster.
Follow these tips to reduce your risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke:
- “Stay in places that are cool," Dr. Vuckovic said. "Take care of your pets, elderly people and children because they are more susceptible to the heat effects.”
- Use air conditioning and fans. If those options do not keep you comfortable, go to area cooling shelters or public areas such as your local library, community center, museum or senior center.
- “Don’t forget about our elderly people out there; make sure we are checking on them too," Dr. Vuckovic said. Older adults are more susceptible to heat-related illness, may have memory issues, have underlying medical conditions or may not have a working air conditioner.
- If you need to spend time outside, wear lightweight, loose-fitting cotton clothing. Light-colored clothing also helps because it will reflect some of the sun’s heat.
- "Limit outdoor activities to early morning or evenings to limit exposure to the hottest hours of the day," said Jeffrey Cox, MD, an urgent care doctor at Franciscan ExpressCare CityWay.
- Don't leave your children in vehicles.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine or sugary drinks.
- “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate," said Louis F. Janeira, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Franciscan Physician Network Indiana Heart Physicians in Crawfordsville. "It’s all about the water loss. When we lose water, the heart compensates. Some folks don’t have the heart strength to compensate. I tell my severe heart disease patients not to stay outside, that the best thing is to stay inside and minimize time outdoors.”
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