As the summer of 2011 kicks off, it looks like it will be a scorcher. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts hotter than normal temperatures this summer, and these high temperatures can be hazardous to your health.
Despite being preventable, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States from 1979-2003. During this period, more people in this country died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined.
People suffer heat-related illness when their bodies can’t properly cool themselves. When this happens, a person's body temperature can rise rapidly. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and understand how to prevent, control and respond to their effects.
Several factors make heat-related illnesses more likely. When the humidity is high, the body’s natural cooling mechanism, sweating, is not as efficient. Sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly. The elderly, infants, pregnant women and individuals with chronic medical conditions are also more likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses.
Heat-related illnesses can range from a mild reaction, such as prickly heat, to a severe reaction, such as heat stroke. Knowing the signs and symptoms of these illnesses is the first step to prevention.
Heat rash, or prickly heat, is the irritation caused by a blocked sweat gland. It looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. The best treatment for heat rash is to wash and dry the affected area and to provide a cool, dry environment. The use of powder may be used to increase comfort.
Heat cramps usually affect people who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. Sweating causes the body to lose water and minerals, and these low salt levels in the muscles may be the cause of heat cramps. If heat cramps are experienced, stop all activity, drink water or a sports beverage and do not return to strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps subside, because further exertion may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If the cramps do not go away within an hour, it is important to seek medical help.
Heat exhaustion is a moderate heat-related illness that can develop through exposure to high temperatures and is the body's response to an excessive loss of the water and salt contained in sweat. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, headache, nausea, lack of appetite, weakness, muscle cramps, dizziness, fainting, or vomiting. The skin is usually cool and moist.
If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. Medical help should be sought immediately if the symptoms are severe or if there are underlying medical conditions. If heat exhaustion is suspected, steps should be taken to cool the victim off, including drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages, resting, moving to a cool place and taking a cool shower or bath.
Heat stroke is an abnormally elevated body temperature, accompanied by physical and neurological symptoms. Under normal conditions, the body can maintain its temperature. However, in extreme heat, high humidity, with vigorous physical exertion under the sun or when someone is dehydrated, the body may not be able to handle the heat and the body temperature rises, sometimes up to 106 F or higher.
This rise in body temperature can occur very quickly, sometimes within 15 minutes. Heat stroke is a true medical emergency that can be fatal if not properly and promptly treated. The symptoms of heat stroke include an extremely high body temperature, hot and dry skin, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and unconsciousness. If any of the signs are seen, call 911 immediately and move the victim to a cool area and cool the victim as quickly as possible by any means available.
During heat waves, ozone levels can reach higher than normal levels. Ozone, the major component of smog, is created by the reaction of sunlight on chemicals found in gasoline vapors, emissions from cars and industrial smoke stacks. Hot summer weather can increase ozone levels. This poor air quality can cause breathing problems, especially among those with respiratory conditions, such as emphysema and asthma.
Symptoms of these respiratory problems can include chest pain, coughing, wheezing, difficulty and rapid breathing. Individuals with these symptoms should seek medical attention. People who exercise or work outdoors, and those with respiratory diseases, should limit strenuous outdoor activity particularly during the afternoon and early evening hours, when ozone levels are the highest.
With temperatures this week heading toward 100, it is important to remember to keep cool, and to remember the basics of heat safety.
- Know your risk: Although temperature and humidity can increase risk of heat-related illness, so can age, sex, weight, physical fitness, nutrition, alcohol or drug use, or pre-existing diseases like diabetes. How can you prevent or control heat-related illnesses?
- Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. During heavy exercise in a hot environment, drink two to four glasses of cool fluids each hour.
- Use air conditioning if available: Air conditioning is the best way to stay cool when temperatures rise. If your home does not have air conditioning, visit the library or mall to escape the heat for a few hours.
- Wear loose, lightweight clothing: Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
- Use sunscreen when outdoors: When in the sun, wear sunscreen of at least SPF 15 and a hat to protect your face and head.
- Limit outdoor activities: Try to limit outdoor activities to morning and evening hours. Try to rest often in shady areas so that your body will have a chance to recover.
- Check on those most vulnerable: If you know someone who is elderly or who has a chronic health condition, check on them at least twice daily to make sure they are staying hydrated and healthy in the heat.
- Do not leave infants, children, or pets in a parked car: Even with the windows cracked open, the inside of a car can heat up almost 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes. Anyone left inside is at risk for serious heat-related illnesses or even death.
- Stay informed: Listen to local news and weather channels for health and safety updates.