Health and medical professionals are receiving many inquiries on dealing with heat-related illnesses and how to cope with the heat from what is expected to be a hot summer. Local EMS and first responders emphasize the need to stay hydrated and aware of your body during times of extreme heat stress.
Retired training officer, Captain John Kevin Nichols, formerly of the Signal Mountain Fire Department in Tennessee, says he'd tell his people to stay well hydrated and watch the color of their urine. Nichols says he would tell them "If your pee is darker than yellow Gatorade or Mountain Dew, you aren't drinking enough water." Nichols said he used the same principle when he was helping with high school band camp. Such wisdom is often helpful when put into terms where people can understand them.
Preventing heat illness
There are simple steps everyone should know and heed to prevent or reduce their chances of developing heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
- If you must exercise in hot, humid conditions, take frequent breaks and plan your exercise in the early mornings or evenings.
- Stay out of the sun when possible during mid-day when the temperature is the highest.
- Wear a shade hat with plenty of ventilation.
- Drink plenty of water, especially when you are exercising
- Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing.
- Stop exercising immediately and get into a cooler environment at the first signs of heat-related illness.
Exercise and heat exhaustion
Exercise-related heat exhaustion is caused by getting too hot when you exercise, bringing your body heat much higher than normal. The brain typically regulates our temperature to within a couple of degrees of 37 degrees Celcius/98.6 degrees Farenheight. Our bodies are adapted to work optimally within this temperature range.
Our bodies have a few ways to lower our body temperature when needed, such as sweating (evaporation), and flushing more blood to our skin and limbs (radiation). These typically won't work well if we are either dehydrated, or the outside temperature is very hot. During heat exhaustion our body temperature can rise to over 100 degrees (F), making us weak and dizzy... leading to collapse.
While heat exhaustion is not as serious as heat stroke, it can lead to heat stroke if left untreated - making your body temperature even higher and causing death. In the US, we're lucky that heat stroke is not common. Heat exhaustion is very common in athletes and during military basic training.
Exercise-related heat exhaustion occurs when the body can't expel enough heat during exercise. Dehydration can cause it, because the liquid in your body is turned to sweat, and also mixed with your breath - both are a means to wick heat away from the body.
Humidity can also play a role, as sweating is less effective in humid conditions as the air can't dry the sweat from your skin to cool it. It's nature's most efficient means of cooling.
Other factors which can prevent your body from cooling efficiently include:
- Drinking alcoholic beverages
- Chronic illness
- Medical conditions
- Certain medication
- Poor physical conditioning
- Not being acclimated to the environment
Young children and older adults are more susceptible to heat exhaustion due to their sweating mechanisms, as are women, Caucasians, and people native to more temperate climates.
The main symptom of heat exhaustion is a body temperature of 101 - 104. Other signs and symptoms include:
- Rapid pulse
- Fast breathing
- Heavy sweating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- low blood pressure
- lack of coordination
EMS providers and John Hopkins acknowledge you may be the first on scene and need to begin treating the person before they are moved to definitive medical care. You should do these to care for people who are suspected of having heat exhaustion:
- Stop the person from working or exercising and move them to a cool area.
- Remove extra clothing and equipment.
- Cool the person gradually until their temperate returns to a normal range - do not depend on oral or contact thermometers.
- Cool the person until they first begin to shiver - use a fan, wet cloths, etc.
- If the person is awake, have them drink sports drinks or water.
Most people begin feeling better within an hour or two of treatment. Those. who do not improve in a short period of time should be taken to the emergency department of the local hospital for further evaluation and treatment. What can I do to prevent heat exhaustion?
Key points about exercise-related heat exhaustion
- Exercise-related heat exhaustion is an illness caused by getting too hot while exercising.
- During heat exhaustion, your body temperature rises above normal.
- Heat exhaustion is less serious than other heat-related illnesses, like heat stroke. But it can progress to heat stroke.
- Some symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps, and sweating more than normal.
- Treatment for heat exhaustion involves lowering your body temperature and getting more fluids.
EMS providers caution people to not ice down someone with heat exhaustion. It is usually more effective to place cool compresses on the forehead, neck, armpits, and groin. The best move is to stay aware of both yourself and those around you.
Preventive measures can be similar to watching for hypothermia. Keep an eye on one another when on outings. You are more likely to notice someone else developing a problem than you are to notice yourself slowly becoming ill.