By: Edward Forster, MD
With long summer days, high temperatures, high humidity, and many activities held outdoors in direct sunlight, conditions in the Tallahassee area create an especially significant risk for heat-related illness. It is a condition that is not only common, but also very serious. For those who spend a great deal of time outside during the summer heat, it is all the more important to know how to prevent heat illness and provide early intervention if it occurs.
Heat exhaustion, and the most serious form of heat illness, heat stroke, occur when the body overheats due to external factors. This overheating is not the same as fever, which is usually the body’s response to infection.
Normally, high temperatures cause sweat to evaporate from the skin’s surface cooling the body. However, this natural cooling mechanism can be overwhelmed by high heat, humidity and direct sunlight, and also complicated by dehydration.
If you are out in the sun and observe someone with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, cramps, or fainting, they may be experiencing mild heat illness or heat exhaustion. These changes may progress to more worrisome signs of heat stroke, such as hot dry skin, rapid heartbeat and breathing, behavioral changes, seizures, and unconsciousness. Without treatment this state can be fatal.
First aid for heat illness involves cooling the victim. Move them to shade or air conditioning and remove excess clothing. Wet the skin with water, using buckets, sponges or hoses and fan the skin to increase evaporation. Ice packs can be placed into armpits, neck and groin, helping to speed cooling of the core, the central part of the body.
Mild symptoms can be treated early with cool water and sports drinks, since often the victim is dehydrated. Remember to give fluids only if the patient is totally alert, awake, and able to swallow. Advanced medical care is needed for people with more serious illness such as heat stroke.
People at highest risk of heat illness include the very old and the very young. People who are obese and those on certain medications and drugs that inhibit the body’s normal cooling responses are also vulnerable. Alcohol overuse and drug abuse often interfere with judgment and the ability to protect oneself from exposure to heat and sun. In addition, elderly persons living without air conditioning are at particular risk during heat waves. Lastly, cars parked in direct sunlight are very dangerous for people and pets. Never leave babies unattended in parked cars even for minutes at a time.
To prevent heat illness, plan activities and exercise sessions early or late in the day when temperatures are lower and the sun is not as high in the sky. Try to be less active in hot conditions, and take steps to cool down frequently by spending time in the shade or in air conditioned environments, swimming and drinking cool, hydrating fluids like water or sports drinks.