With summer approaching, we need to be aware of the negative effects of the rising temperature on our bodies. For the summertime is when we relish and enjoy the sunshine and longer days in which to have picnics, boating, swimming at the beach or just sitting on the porch or in the yard sipping a cool glass of tea or lemonade. However, as the outside temperatures rise, the internal body temperature needs to stay within a tight range. To do this, the body eliminates excess heat as needed primarily by sweating, which cools the body by evaporation of sweat. This mechanism can only do so much and may become insufficient. When that happens, symptoms of heat illness will become apparent.
By definition, heat illness is a term used to cover a range of signs and symptoms that can occur when your body’s cooling mechanisms are overwhelmed and the body’s temperature climbs too high. This can occur quickly if you are exerting yourself or exercising. On the other hand, it can develop slowly over a few days, even without exertion. This most commonly occurs in older adults who have risk factors for heat illness and limited air conditioning. The symptoms may range from mild to severe and life-threatening. However, prudent, wise precautions can prevent most heat illness, especially if early signs are recognized and corrective action taken.
What are the major types of heat illness and how are they recognized? Following is a brief description of the types of heat illness and how they are usually managed.
Heat Cramps, often noted in athletes, e.g. football players after exercise. Muscle cramps develop and sometimes swelling (edema) occurs after a sudden transition to a hot environment. This is usually managed by drinking water or a sports drink (which contains water and electrolytes) to replace what is lost through the sweat. Elevation of the legs is usually part of the treatment.
Heat exhaustion causes heavy sweating, feeling chilly although you are not, dizziness, headache, weakness, rapid pulse and nausea. The body’s temperature, however, remains near normal.
Heat Stroke can occur over days or without exertion (e.g. sitting in a hot, poorly ventilated room) or it can occur quickly with exertion in a hot environment. The symptoms of heat stroke include hot skin with or without sweating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, rapid pulse, and can result in seizure and/or loss of consciousness. The body temperature approaches or exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit. This condition is an immediate emergency. Call 911, apply cold, wet towels and fan air across the body and apply ice packs to the chest, armpits and groin areas.
Prevention of heat illness is very important. Older adults are at increased risk for heat-related illness in part because of age when some of the body’s natural cooling mechanisms may be in decline and don’t work as well. Also, other conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and impaired mobility may place the elderly at higher risk. The best way to prevent heat illness is to stay in an air conditioned place.
If one must be in the heat, it is suggested that you do the following:
-Drink plenty of cool, non-alcoholic beverages and water to keep hydrated.
-Take cool baths or showers to cool down. Fans can help but are not effective when the room temperature is too warm and the outside temperature is 90 degrees or higher.
-Dress for the warm weather by wearing loose-fitting light clothing that allows air flow over the skin.
-Avoid sunburn by staying in the shade as much as possible and use sunscreen when in the sun.
-Plan activities as much as possible to occur in the cooler part of the day, e.g. mornings or evenings.
Psalm 121:5-6 – “The Lord is your keeper; The Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day or the moon by night.”
John W. Downing, Jr., M.D.