Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Heat-related Illnesses: What You Need to Know Now

Have you been outside today? The summer days are upon us, and as the days get hotter it is important to remember the risks heat exposure poses to some of the most vulnerable members of our community: infants and seniors. Seniors, in particular, are at a risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke, two related but very different illnesses that can develop from exposure to high temperatures and lack of fluids.

A Look at Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat stroke, and though not as fatal it can easily lead to heat stroke if not treated immediately. Those who are at most risk for heat exhaustion are seniors, people with high blood pressure, and those who work outdoors or exercise in the heat. It is important to stay hydrated and out of the heat in these months of the year, and symptoms can be hard to notice at first.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
• Heavy sweating
• Pale skin
• Muscle cramps
• Tiredness
• Weak
• Dizzy
• Headache
• Nausea/vomiting
• Fainting
• Skin that is cool and moist to the touch
• Fast and shallow breathing
• Drowsiness

What To Do If You See the Signs
If you or someone you are with is suffering from any of the symptoms of heat exhaustion it is critical to begin treatment immediately so it does not progress to heat stroke, a true medical emergency. To begin treatment, immediately begin to cool the victim down using any combination of these methods provided by the Centers for Disease Control:
• Cool shower or bath, even spray with a garden hose if you are outdoors and cannot make it inside.
• Rest in an air conditioned environment.
• Lightweight clothing.
• Cool, nonalcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages (alcohol and caffeine can promote dehydration). If the symptoms get worse, or last longer than one hour, it is essential that you seek medical attention.

Investigating Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is the next progression in heat exhaustion if it is left untreated, and requires emergency medical attention. In its worst cases, the victim can suffer from permanent organ damage or even death. It is a form of hyperthermia, which is a raised body temperature that can severely impact your health permanently. Though our bodies generally can dissipate heat by radiation through the skin, or sweating, when extreme heat conditions occur, the body may not be able to cool itself down well enough or fast enough causing the stroke. Additionally, someone who is dehydrated may not be able to sweat fast enough or cool down quickly, which can cause their body temperature to rise too high as well. Those with heart, lung and kidney disease, as well as those taking medications that can cause them to be vulnerable to heat strokes, are at a greater risk.

Symptoms of heat stroke, though similar to heat exhaustion, are more severe, and are both physical and neurological. Physically, the victim can suffer symptoms similar to a heart attack, and typically the following are noticed: nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, headache, muscle cramps, difficulty breathing, absence of sweating-hot red or flushed dry skin, and rapid pulse. Neurological signs include: confusion, agitation, hallucinations, and strange behaviors.

If you notice someone exhibiting these signs, immediately call 911 and begin to cool the victim down. Many of the same cooling methods for heat exhaustion work well, in addition to fanning the victim to promote sweating, and monitoring their body temperature with a thermometer until the body temperature drops to 101-102 degrees and use any and all cooling methods until medical help has arrived. Always remember that prevention is the key.

Avoiding heat exhaustion and heat stroke is crucial when temperatures rise.
• The most important measures to prevent heat strokes are to avoid becoming dehydrated and to avoid vigorous physical activities in hot and humid weather.
• If you have to perform physical activities in hot weather, drink plenty of fluids (such as water and sports drinks), but avoid alcohol, caffeine and tea, which may lead to dehydration.
• Your body will need to replace important chemicals (such as sodium) as well as fluids if you sweat excessively or perform vigorous activity in the sunlight for prolonged periods.
• Take frequent breaks to hydrate yourself. Wear hats and light-colored, lightweight, loose clothes.