As we swing into the dog days of summer and continue with record heat in some parts of the country, it’s important to talk about a potential health risk: heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion, if not treated, can progress to heat stroke, which can eventually damage the brain and other organs and even lead to death.
What are the Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion?
The most common signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
Dark-colored urine (which is a sign of dehydration)
Muscle or abdominal cramps
Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
How Do You Treat Heat Exhaustion?
If you or a loved one show symptoms of heat exhaustion, it’s very important to immediately get out of the heat and rest, preferably in an air-conditioned room. If getting inside is not possible, depending on your location, find the nearest shady spot and rest there.
Other recommended strategies include:
Drink plenty of fluids, preferably cool water. It’s best to avoid drinking coffee or alcohol as these are dehydrating.
Remove any tight or unnecessary clothing.
If inside, take a cool (not ice cold) shower, bath, or sponge bath. It’s also helpful to run your wrists under cool water.
Watch the time to see if these cooling methods have provided any relief within a 15-minute window. If they haven’t brought relief within that timeframe, seek emergency help immediately, as heat exhaustion can quickly progress into heat stroke.
Should you experience heat exhaustion, you may find you are more sensitive to high temperatures for a week or so following the episode. For this reason, it’s best to avoid hot weather (or even heavy exercise) until after your doctor has given you the green light to resume your normal activities.
Risk Factors for Heat Exhaustion
Pay attention to heat index
Heat exhaustion is related to the heat index, which is a measure of how hot a person feels when the effects of relative humidity and air temperature are combined. For instance, a relative humidity of 60% or more impedes sweat evaporation, which hinders the body’s ability to cool itself.
When the heat index rises to 90 degrees or more, the risk of heat-related illness increases dramatically. It’s very important, particularly during heat waves, to pay attention when the weatherperson announces the heat index. It’s equally important to understand that the heat index rises higher when you are standing in full sunshine.
Urban areas are known for the “heat island effect”
Individuals living in urban areas are especially prone to heat exhaustion during the summer months. This is because of something called the “heat island effect.” Cities are places with stagnant atmospheric conditions and poor air quality. On top of this, all of that asphalt and concrete stores heat during the day and only releases small amounts at night.
This results in higher nighttime temperatures and little relief for city dwellers.
Age and health conditions
While all people are at risk for developing heat exhaustion, infants and children up to age 5, and adults over the age of 65 are particularly vulnerable to high temperatures because they adjust to heat more slowly.
Health conditions that affect the heart, lungs and kidneys make an individual more prone. Obesity, high blood pressure, mental illness, diabetes, and any other condition that causes fever are also conditions that increase a person’s risk.
Included in this category are diuretics, sedatives, stimulants, tranquilizers and heart and blood pressure medications. It is always a good idea to check with your doctor to determine if your specific health condition or medication(s) are likely to affect your ability to cope with extreme heat and humidity.
How to Prevent Heat Exhaustion
When the heat index is high, your best bet is to stay indoors in air conditioning. If you must go outside, there are a few things you can do to prevent heat exhaustion:
Always wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing. Also, a wide-brimmed hat is recommended to keep the sun directly off your face and neck.
Always wear sunscreen, and preferably with an SPF of 30 or more.
During days when the heat index has risen, you must be sure to drink extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Though fresh, cool water is your best bet, you may also drink fruit juice or veggie juice.
Also, because heat-related illness can also be caused by salt depletion, it is recommended that you consume an electrolyte-rich sports drink during extremely hot and humid days. If you’re still unsure of how much fluids you need to consume, speak with your doctor.
As mentioned previously, avoid drinks that contain alcohol or caffeine, because both of these substances can make you lose even more fluids. If you have been diagnosed with epilepsy, kidney or liver disease and are on a fluid-restricted diet, or of you have a problem with fluid retention, check with your doctor before increasing your liquid intake.
Watch your exercise
If you normally exercise outside, it is highly advised that you bring that exercise indoors on extremely hot and humid days.
Protect your pets
On very hot days it’s important to remember our pets are also very vulnerable. Keep them indoors with you where it’s cool, and make sure they have access to fresh, clean water throughout the day.
While dogs typically love to go with you in the car on errands, leave them at home where it’s cool. Leaving your dog in a hot car, where temperatures are usually 10 times higher than the outside air, can cause heat stroke and death very quickly.
Summer should be a time of fun and relaxation, and as long as you take precautions on those extremely hot days, you and your loved ones can avoid developing heat exhaustion.
Nathan Bradshaw is an expert marketer who specializes in promoting and growing physician practices. He currently works with UrgentWay to help improve their online footprint and garner interest in their Urgent Care, Occupational Health and Health Services.
Aptly named, Enclothed Cognition is the official Medelita blog for medical professionals interested in topics relevant to a discerning and inquisitive audience. Medelita was founded by a licensed clinician who felt strongly about the connection between focus, poise and appearance.