Too Hot to Handle: Recognizing Heat-related Illness
By Tanya Munger | DNP, FNP-BC, AP-PMN
Now that the sun is shining and the temperature is rising, many of us are eager to participate in outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, running, and swimming.
We have patiently waited for summer to arrive so that we can enjoy the sun and the heat. The important question to ask is at what point the summer sun becomes too hot to handle?
WHAT IS A HEAT-RELATED ILLNESS?
Sweating and the evaporation of sweat is how our body cools itself and regulates body temperature. But when you exercise strenuously or otherwise overexert yourself in hot, humid weather, your body is less able to efficiently cool itself. Your body temperature can rise faster than it is able to cool itself, and sweating will not be enough. As a result, you may develop a heat-related illness, like heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is one of three heat-related syndromes, with heat cramps being the mildest and heatstroke being the most severe. Heat exhaustion occurs when a person’s body temperature rises faster than their body is able to cool itself down. The body loses water and electrolytes through sweating. Without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition. Heatstroke can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs. Fortunately, heat exhaustion is preventable, especially when you recognize the signs and symptoms early.
RECOGNIZING SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, a result of your body overheating. Other symptoms include nausea, dizziness, irritability, headache, heavy sweating, high body temperature, thirst, weakness, and decreased urination. Prompt treatment usually prevents heat cramps from progressing to heat exhaustion. You usually can treat heat cramps by drinking fluids or sports drinks containing electrolytes, getting into cooler temperatures (such as an air-conditioned or shaded place), and resting.
Summertime activity must be balanced with actions to help the body cool itself to prevent heat exhaustion. You can take a number of simple precautions to prevent heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses. When temperatures climb, remember to:
+Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing.
+Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated will help your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature. Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink.
+Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest parts of the day. Try to schedule exercise during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or evening.
+Pace yourself and rest frequently. If you’re not accustomed to working or exercising in the heat, start slowly and increase the pace gradually.
+Wear sunscreen to prevent sunburn. Sunburn affects your body’s ability to regulate temperature and can contribute to dehydration.
+Avoid eating hot and/or heavy meals. This adds heat to your body!
+Use a buddy system and monitor each other when engaging in strenuous activities in the heat. If your heart is pounding or you feel yourself gasping for breath with exertion, STOP all activity! You should get into a cool area or shade and rest, especially if you become lightheaded, confused, weak, or faint.
In most cases, you can treat heat exhaustion yourself by doing the following:
+Rest in a cool place. If air conditioning is not available, you should find a shady spot or sit in front of a fan. Rest on your back with your legs elevated higher than your heart level.
+Drink cool fluids. Water or sports drinks are preferred. Don’t drink any alcoholic beverages, which can contribute to dehydration.
+Try cooling measures. Take a cool shower, soak in a cool bath, or put towels soaked in cool water on your skin. If you’re outdoors, soaking in a cool pond or stream can help lower your temperature.
+Make sure your clothes are lightweight and non-binding.
If you don’t begin to feel better within one hour of using these treatments, seek prompt medical attention. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your core body temperature reaches 104°F (40°C) or higher. Heatstroke requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent damage to your brain and other vital organs that can result in death.