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How to Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses, Including Heat Stroke

It may surprise some to learn that heat waves kill more people in the United States each year than all other natural disasters combined. Learning a few basic tips for guarding against heat-related illnesses may prove important later on, especially in these times when weather extremes appear to be on the rise globally.

Hyperthermia is an elevated body temperature caused by inability of the heat-regulating mechanisms of the body to sufficiently dissipate excessive heat from our environment. Heat-related illnesses caused by hyperthermia include: heat fatigue, heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

The chart below, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), outlines the dangers of heat-related illnesses based on outside temperatures and humidity.

There is not much danger of heat-related illness at low temperatures and low humidity. The most likely situation where heat stroke may occur as a result of environmental factors is when high temperatures combine with high humidity. These risks may be lowered if wind speed is high, which produces a cooling effect.

The risk of heat-related illness increases if the person has complicating factors such as dehydration; heart, lung or kidney diseases; high blood pressure; excess weight. Also, populations that are especially vulnerable are infants and young children, and people 65 and older.

How to Prvent Heat Stroke

Heat Fatigue

The first sign of heat fatigue is feeling more tired than usual from any given activity. Extreme sweating, headaches, and disorientation may also occur. Heat fatigue is not a serious condition, but it is important to recognize it when it happens, as it will help prevent further hyperthermia that could result in the more serious conditions of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

At the heat fatigue stage, the individual should find a cool, shaded area to sit down.

Rehydration is also important. The best fluid you can drink is one that replaces lost salts or electrolytes. Electrolytes are found in fruit juices and sports beverages. You can dilute some juice with plenty of water (you don’t want to drink straight juice, because that will not quench your thirst as effectively), or you can drink sports beverages. Look for sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium on beverage labels. Avoid drinking plain distilled water, as this will further wash out the essential salts from your body.

Rigorous activity should not be resumed until sweating has abated and the heart rate has returned to normal. If physical activity is continued, there is a danger of stroke and the need for hospitalization.

Heat Rash

Heat rash occurs when sweat glands are blocked, typically by clothing, and sweat becomes trapped under the skin.

This build-up of sweat causes blisters and lumps and can be quite itchy.

Although heat rash is not serious at the outset, it is important not to scratch, as that will further aggravate the condition. Armpits, elbow bends and groins are areas of concern, as they easily trap sweat.

Heat rash usually goes away on its own; but the best way to relieve symptoms is to cool off skin and avoid sweating until skin has healed; also, insure that affected skin is henceforth exposed to air.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are muscle spasms that occur during rigorous activity. They are caused by salt depletion and are a precursor to the more serious condition of heat exhaustion. When heat cramps begin, it is important to stop rigorous activity and immediately drink fluids, preferably those with electrolytes.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a serious matter. The warning signs of heat exhaustion include profuse sweating, paleness, increased muscle cramps, tiredness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and fainting.

Heat exhaustion can be caused by either water depletion or salt (electrolyte) depletion. The skin may be cool and moist. The pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow.

At this stage, all activity should cease and the individual should find a cool, dry place and remain in a sitting position. Drink plenty of fluids with electrolytes and use an electric fan or have a friend manually fan. If heat exhaustion is untreated, it may progress to heat stroke.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is the most serious and can be life-threatening. A person with heat stroke usually has a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Other symptoms include confusion, disorientation, and delirium. But the most obvious symptom should be that the individual has stopped sweating and the skin becomes dry, reddened and hot. At this stage, the body’s heat-regulating mechanisms have completely failed and immediate medical attention is necessary.

First, call 911 and specify heat stroke. The individual should be lying down in a cool place. Then, cool off the person rapidly. If possible, immerse them in cool water. Otherwise, sponge or spray the individual with cold water. If the individual is conscious, provide plenty of cool water to drink, again preferably with electrolytes. Continue the process until the body temperature is below 101 degrees F. Apply a fan or use manual fanning to further cool individual.

By Jamell Andrews

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