Heat-related deaths and illness are preventable yet every year many people succumb to extreme heat. People suffer heat-related illness when their bodies are unable to compensate and properly cool themselves. The body normally cools itself by sweating. But under some conditions, sweating just isn’t enough. In such cases, a person’s body temperature rises rapidly.
Several factors affect the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat. Other conditions such as age, obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, and prescription drug and alcohol use can contribute to heat-related illness.
Heat cramps are muscular pains and spasms, usually in the legs arms or abdomen, resulting from exertion during extreme heat that causes copious sweating. This sweating depletes the body’s salt and hydration. Heat cramps usually occur when the heat index is between 90 and 105 degrees. Although heat cramps are the least severe of all heat-related health problems, they are often the first signal that the body is having trouble coping with the heat and should be treated immediately with rest and fluids. Drink clear juice or a sports drink to help ease the cramps. Stretching, gentle massaging of the muscle or direct, firm pressure on cramps can reduce pain. Seek medical attention if pain is severe, lasts longer than an hour or nausea occurs.
Heat exhaustion is a moderate form of heat-related illness. It can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate fluid consumption or when body fluids are lost through heavy sweating due to vigorous exercise or working in a hot, humid place. Blood flow to the skin increases, causing blood flow to vital organs to decrease. Symptoms include: heavy sweating, pale and clammy skin, weakness, fatigue, headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, fast shallow breaths, and a fast weak pulse.
Heat exhaustion should be treated with rest in a cool area, sipping cool water or sports drinks, elevating the feet several inches, and apply cool cloths for the face, neck, hands, feet and arm pits. Seek further medical treatment in severe cases or if the symptoms do not improve after an hour. If not treated, the victim’s condition may escalate to heat stroke.
Heat stroke — also called “sunstroke” — occurs when a person’s body is unable to regulate it’s temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly sweating ceases and the body is unable to cool down. The skin is flushed, red, hot and dry. A person’s temperature will be very high (above 103 degrees orally). Other warning signs may include headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, seizures or unconsciousness. In fact, body temperature can rise so high that brain damage and death may result if the body is not cooled quickly.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and requires immediate emergency medical attention. While waiting on the Ambulance crew to arrive, begin cooling the victim. Move the victim to a cool or shaded area. Cool the person quickly using a cool bath, shower, spay from a garden hose or wrap them in a damp sheet. If possible, monitor the person’s temperature until help arrives. Heat stroke usually occurs when the heat index is 130 degrees or higher.