Summer is nearly upon us.
The weather is getting warmer and soon, across much of the country, temperatures will be nearing the triple digits, if they are not there already. People are enjoying days on the lake, afternoons by the pool, and nights on the patio.
But this warm weather can be dangerous. It can lead to life-threatening conditions, especially for older adults, who are more susceptible to heat stress, heatstroke and dehydration.
With temperatures already hitting record highs across much of the United States, it’s more important than ever to know about heat-related illnesses.
Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are caused when the body’s internal cooling mechanisms can no longer regulate its internal temperature effectively. When this happens, one’s body temperature rises rapidly, faster than the rate at which it can cool down.
When left untreated, the effects of these illnesses can be deadly. On average, 658 Americans die each year due to heat-related illnesses. High body temperatures can also cause significant damage to internal organs such as the brain and heart, meaning that the effects of a severe case of heatstroke can lead to a much lower quality of life.
Older Americans are considered to be especially vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, as chronic illnesses and the side effects from certain medications can impact the body’s ability to cool itself down. The body does this through perspiration, or sweating, which means that effective hydration is crucial during the summer months.
What are the signs of heat exhaustion?
When sweat cannot properly evaporate, the body cannot release heat effectively. When the body cannot release heat effectively, heat exhaustion sets in. This is commonly confused with heatstroke, but it’s just the first step toward it. Still, it is incredibly important to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion and to take action when it becomes apparent.
When suffering from heat exhaustion, one may feel the following symptoms:
- A headache
- Intense muscle cramps
- Dizziness, sometimes progressing to fainting
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Cool skin, moist to the touch
- Rapid, shallow breaths
- Weak, quick heartbeat
Heat exhaustion is serious but does not always require a trip to the emergency room. Specialists recommend that those who think they are experiencing heat exhaustion cease all strenuous activities and move out of the heat, to a cooler place. Hydration is key, so drinking water is a must. However, sports drinks or other liquids with electrolytes in them can be even better, as this can replace some of what was lost while sweating more quickly.
If someone’s symptoms do not get better, or if they lose consciousness or become agitated or confused, you will need to seek medical attention.
What are the signs of heatstroke?
If heat exhaustion is left unchecked, the condition can turn into heatstroke – a severe, life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of heatstroke include:
- Internal temperature greater than 103 degrees
- Red, hot and dry skin, with no perspiration
- Strong, rapid pulse
- Severe, throbbing headache
- Dizziness accompanied by nausea
- In certain cases, unconsciousness
When the body is at such a high temperature for a prolonged period of time, incredible stress is put on the internal organs, which are not designed to operate at such a temperature. Severe organ damage can ensue.
It is absolutely critical that someone who is suffering from heatstroke seeks immediate medical attention.
How to prevent heat-related illnesses
The best way to prevent heat-related illnesses is to stay vigilant. When you must spend time outside, it’s important to follow the below steps:
- Avoid strenuous activity outside during the hottest parts of the way
- If attempting strenuous activity, begin to hydrate the day before
- Remain hydrated and drink plenty of fluids
- Wear proper clothing that fits loosely and is lightweight
- Know your risk factors
- Don’t be afraid to head inside if you start to feel ill
In the event that an individual finds themselves suffering from a heat-related illness, it is incredibly important for them to cool down and lower their internal body temperature. Heading inside, out of the hot weather, should always be a top priority. Once inside, there are a few things you can do to cool your body down:
- Take off unnecessary clothes and make sure that all remaining clothing is loose and lightweight
- Drink cool fluids like water or sports drinks. Avoid any alcoholic beverages
- Take a cold shower or cold bath
- Put ice packs or cold towels on key points of the body where there are veins, such as the neck, chest, temple and wrists
- Avoid unnecessary movement
By knowing the signs of heat-related illnesses, how to avoid them, and how to treat them, you’ll be well equipped to handle whatever the summer throws at you.