We may be rolling into the end of the summer, but it seems mother nature is not ready for the party to end. Within the last month (being considered one of the hottest Julys on record), some parts of the country have seen extremely high temperatures and those temperatures could continue into August. It’s a good time to remind everyone to stay hydrated and keep cool, especially those who work outside, and prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year the U.S. experiences an average of 702 heat-related deaths; 67,512 emergency room visits; and 9,235 hospitalizations. These deaths and hospital visits are preventable.
Seniors are at a high risk to suffer heat related illnesses. As our body gets older, it is slower to sense and respond to changes in temperature. Sweat glands work less efficiently with age, and other normal changes in the skin slow down the release of heat. Seniors are also more likely to suffer from conditions that cause poor circulation and be on several medications, both affecting the body’s ability to cool down. Often, they may not sweat until after their body temperature has soared.
Knowing more about heat stroke and heat exhaustion may help you to stay safe and beat this summer heat.
Heatstroke is a condition that results when your body is not able to regulate its temperature causing it to overheat, reaching a body temperature of 104 F or higher (this temperature can be reached in as little as 10 minutes). This is typically a result of prolonged exposure to or physical exertion in high temperatures, especially in high humidity. This is the most serious form of heat injury and can be fatal.
Heatstroke requires immediate emergency treatment. Untreated heatstroke can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles. The damage worsens the longer treatment is delayed, increasing your risk of serious complications or death.
Signs and symptoms of heat stroke can include:
- High body temperature
- Skin can feel hot and dry to the touch
- Skin can feel dry or moist in cases of strenuous exercise or exertion
- Nausea and vomiting
- Red, hot skin with no sweating
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid pulse – heart racing
- Headache – could be intense
- Falling unconscious.
If you think a person may be experiencing heatstroke, call 911 immediately. While waiting for help to arrive, it is important to do the following:
- Get the person into the shade or indoors.
- Remove excess clothing.
- Cool the person down by whatever means necessary (pool, bath, shower, wet towels) paying special attention to the person’s head, neck, armpits, and groin.
- If you can, check the person’s temperature with a goal of getting it down to below 102F.
- Do not give the person water if they are experiencing violent twitching of the muscles. Lay them on their side, keeping the airway open, in event of vomiting.
Heat exhaustion also occurs when your body overheats, losing large amounts of salt and water through sweating. It is not as dangerous as heat stroke, but you need to pay attention because it can quickly progress to heat stroke.
Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Low blood pressure
- Muscle cramps
- Dark urine
- Weak, rapid pulse
How to Prevent Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
- Drink plenty of water, especially if you work outside, and don’t wait until you are thirsty. If you are sweating heavily, turn to water with electrolytes and sports drinks.
- Stay in the air conditioning. If you don’t have air conditioning, go to the local stores or library for a little while, or even a friend’s house.
- Wear hats and use cooling towels if you must be outside.
- Wear light-colored, light-material, loose clothing.
- Take a cool shower or bath. Don’t take a bath or shower if you are dizzy, nauseous, vomiting, or feel as though you may pass out.
- If you have a local pool, go for a swim. Be careful not to spend too much time sitting outside the pool in the heat. If you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, or feel as though you may pass out, do not go into the pool and get into the air conditioning quickly.
- If you exercise, ideally, focus on indoor exercising. If you must be outdoors, consider doing your routine in the early morning or late evening, when temperatures may be cooler. Start out slow. At the first sign of weakness or lightheadedness, stop exercising and get into a cool environment.
- A fan could assist but without cool air, it may not help.
- If temperatures are extreme, check on the seniors in your area. Encourage and assist them in reaching out to local community organizations or the health department during extreme weather.
- Limit the use of stoves and ovens, as they add heat to your home.
- Limit your use of alcohol.
It is important to check on those who may need assistance like seniors, those with young children or those with mental health conditions. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the signs of heat stroke, it is important to act quickly, taking the necessary steps to prevent heat stroke. In the case of heat stroke, call 911 immediately and get that person indoors or a shaded area and attempt to cool off their body.
This article has been reviewed by Dr. Irina Koyfman, DNP, NP-C, RN, Chief Population Health Officer, RPM Healthcare.