The time of year is here again when the weather gets warmer and my patients spend more time outdoors exercising, doing chores around their homes, or perhaps even working in a job that takes them outdoors for the hottest part of the day. Some of them wind up in my office, or even emergency rooms, when they become overheated, dehydrated and sick from too much heat.
In fact, the CDC reports that many heat related illnesses and deaths occur every year that could be avoided if people would only use a little precaution. As we are on the edge of summer, I’d like to talk to you about types of heat related illnesses and things you can do to prevent them.
What Is Heat-Related Illness?
Heat-related illness can take several forms but all are caused by one thing – too much exposure to outdoor heat and humidity. Sweating helps cool your body in hot weather, but when it is very hot, sweating may not cool you enough and your core body temperature can rise too high. Varieties of heat illness can include:
- Heat stroke – core body temperature rises above 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The body literally overheats with symptoms of pounding heartbeat, dizziness, dry skin.
- Heat exhaustion – symptoms include intense sweating and a fast shallow heartbeat.
- Heat cramps – occurs from dehydration/mineral loss from profuse sweating.
- Heat rash – also called “prickly heat”, results from sweat glands being blocked. A cluster of red, raised bumps can occur anywhere on the body.
- Fungal rash – caused by intense sweating and fungal infection. Occurs anywhere skin contacts skin such as underarms, inside thighs, under breasts, waist, and groin area. Can cause intense itching and burning redness.
Who Is At Greatest Risk?
Generally, elderly people, very young children, people with chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, etc, and the mentally challenged are at the highest risk for getting a heat-related illness. However, anyone can get sick from too much heat exposure especially if you participate in outdoor exercise, house or lawn work, or your occupation requires you to work outdoors.
How To Treat Heat Illness
Heat related illness responds well to bystander first-aid and/or self-treatment. Here are some things you can do:
Heat exhaustion/heat cramps: Quick treatment can stop from progressing to heat stroke.
- Move person to the shade, or preferably an air-conditioned building or car. Slightly elevate their legs. Loosen tight clothing.
- Give an electrolyte drink like Gatorade, Pedialyte, or a sports drink in small, continuous sips. Simple water with 1 tsp salt per quart will also work. If no water is available, fruit or vegetable juices will work. Do NOT give alcohol.
- If there is a water supply nearby, wet some rags or towels in water and place on the person’s forehead, neck, under their arms, over their groin.
- Apply gentle massaging pressure to muscle cramps. This will help circulation to the muscle so the muscle can relax.
- If possible, take the person’s temperature over a period of several minutes. If it starts to rise, get the person immediate medical care at an urgent care or emergency room.
Heat rash: Either prickly heat or fungal-based.
- Wash areas with cool water and a mild, soothing soap like oatmeal. Dry areas completely.
- Over the counter antifungal medication for “jock itch” can help kill the organisms and quiet the itch and redness. Or, contact your doctor who can give you an oral antifungal medication. Avoid heat exposure and sweating until it heals.
Heat Stroke: Follow the recommendations above for heat exhaustion/cramps and immediately seek medical help by calling 9-1-1 or get the person to an urgent care or emergency department.
How To Prevent Heat Related Illness
As I advise my patients, preventing heat related illness is pretty simple. Here’s what I tell them:
- Stay well hydrated in high heat. This means drinking more water than you usually do and adding electrolyte drinks to keep salt and potassium levels stable.
- Stay cool. Move your exercise indoors if it is too hot and put off lawn or yard work until the sun has gone down. Stay in air conditioning or take frequent air conditioned breaks.
- Eat adequately. Often people do not like to eat much in extreme heat. However, this can lead to dehydration. Eat smaller meals throughout the day and drink cool-warm chicken broth that will help keep you from dehydrating.
- Use Common Sense. Pace yourself, don’t stay outdoors in the heat too long. Don’t leave children or elderly, or pets, alone in a car with the sun beating down into it.
The summer is a time for getting outdoors and enjoying the warm sun but heat related illnesses are anything but fun. They can have life-threatening consequences. Be proactive and carry water and/or a sport drink with you. A first aid kit in your car that contains salt tablets or an electrolyte mix is a good idea. So is carrying your cell phone outdoors with you. Know the symptoms of heat illness and use a buddy system if you work or exercise outdoors. Enjoy your summer! Stay well!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News
Heat Exhaustion/Stroke, First Aid, http://www.skinsight.com/firstaid/firstAidHeatExhaustion.htm
Heat Cramps, First Aid, http://www.skinsight.com/firstaid/firstAidHeatCramps.htm
Extreme Heat, http://www.cdc.gov/Features/ExtremeHeat/