Heat related illness is a risk factor for all age groups. People who are athletic and in good physical condition are at risk of extreme heat, as are infants and children, older adults, outside workers, low-income households, and individuals with chronic health issues. There are over 700 heat-related deaths each year in the US.
Extreme heat is defined as a temperature that is much hotter or humid than average for a specific region or area for a specific time of the year. Heat-related illness, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, happen when the body is not able to cool itself efficiently. Cooling normally occurs when the body sweats during extreme heat, but perspiration may not be enough to maintain a safe body temperature. As a person’s body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself, brain other and organ damage may occur.
Older adults, children, and people with mental illness and chronic disease are at higher risk. Even young and healthy individuals can be affected by extreme heat while engaging in strenuous activities. Summertime activities must be balanced with ways to cool the body down. It is imperative that we understand how to prevent heat-related injuries and death.
Stay in a cool environment. Choose indoor air-conditioned places if you are at high risk. If you are unable to have air conditioning in your home visit public places that have air conditioning such as the public library, a mall, or a store. Fans may be helpful but will not prevent heat-related illnesses. Taking a cold shower or moving to an air-conditioned area is a much better choice.
Limit your outdoor activity in the heat. Choose early or evening hours to participate in outdoor activities. Pick appropriate exercise or work-related activities based on the how hot the environment may be. If activities make your heart pound or cause shortness of breath, lightheadedness, confusion, weakness, or feeling faint, stop that activity immediately and get into a cool area and rest. Rest often and stay hydrated.
Protect your body from the sun’s rays. Wear hats and sunglasses and other clothing that is light, loose fitting and light in color. Sunscreen is protective but can also inhibit the body’s ability to cool down and can cause you to dehydrate quicker. Choose a broad-spectrum sun block to protect your skin from UV rays.
Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink. Avoid sugary or alcoholic drinks. These drinks can cause you to lose more body fluid. Avoid extremely cold drinks because they can cause cramping. Make sure you replace salts and minerals that you may have lost due to sweating. Avoid hot and heavy meals that may slow your fluid intake.
If you have specific medical conditions, check with your doctor on the most appropriate way to maintain hydration that will work for you.
Keep a close monitor on those people at high risk such as infants, young children, elderly or overweight persons, individuals with underlying medical conditions, or those taking medications. Individuals that may have communication difficulties may not be able to indicate the symptoms of heat related illness to others. Check on individuals frequently when extreme heat is identified. Heat-induced illness can become debilitating very quickly.
Be cautious of environments that may magnify heat exposure quickly like vehicles or closed areas without adequate ventilation. These areas can become dangerous within a matter of minutes. Cars can heat up to a dangerous temperature very quickly even with a window partially open. Children, elderly, and pets are specially at risk for heat-related illness or death in this environment. Never leave infants, children, or pets in a car even with the windows cracked open. Leave a reminder on your phone or on your person that you have a child or at-risk person in the car with you. Check your vehicle by walking around it and looking for anyone left in the vehicle before leaving it.
Keep up with weather updates that can keep you informed of extreme heat alerts in the forecast. Identify areas or cooling shelters where you may be able to visit to get away from extreme heat. If you suspect you or someone else is suffering from a heat-related illness, call 911 for assistance.
Health Matters is a series of Daily Courier articles published contributed by The Community Health Council of Rutherford County. This organization provides the structure for the leaders of major organizations to work effectively together to address Rutherford County’s key health concerns. Monthly articles are submitted by Health Council members. Dr. Chris Burley is local chiropractor and a long-time health advocate through SafeKids, a member of the Community Health Council.