I’m sure most of us would agree that it is has been a long, hot summer. And since it looks like we still have a little longer to go before the cooler temperatures of fall get here, now is a good time to talk a little about how this heat affects us—especially when we’re being active outdoors.
Heat Illness Takes on Several Degrees
Heat illness takes many forms, from mild to severe. Heat rash and heat cramps are forms of mild heat illness. Dehydration can set in very fast when it’s hot, and dehydration contributes to more severe forms of heat illness like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. While mild heat illness tends to be self-limited, heat stroke is a medical emergency.
Heat cramps usually involve major muscle groups, especially the leg muscles, and they tend to follow prolonged periods of activity in the heat. They are thought to be secondary to sweat loss and electrolyte imbalance. If you get heat cramps, gentle massaging, stretching, and rehydration in a cool area is usually all you need to do to treat them. To prevent them, make sure you are staying hydrated, eating regularly, and taking an occasional break to stretch and recover.
Heat rash is another irritating problem associated especially with hot, humid climates. Heat rash is caused by wearing occlusive clothing or from areas of the skin that rub together and obstruct the pores in the skin that produce sweat. The sweat then leaks into the surrounding tissue causing the characteristic itchy red bumps. By wearing loose, breathable fabrics, this condition can be avoided. If you do get heat rash, try applying a cool, damp cloth to affected areas for symptomatic relief.
Dehydration is a major contributor to heat exhaustion, which typically occurs after prolonged exposure to a hot climate. Symptoms include headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting, exhaustion, and dizziness. Heat exhaustion needs to be taken very seriously, because not recognizing it and leaving it untreated can lead to heat stroke. Removal from the hot environment, cool liquids, something to eat, and rest is usually all that is needed for treatment. However, being seen by a medical provider is necessary to ensure the correct diagnosis and to make sure other forms of treatment are not needed.
Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes completely overwhelmed by the hot environment. A victim of heat stroke will have a fever, will usually (but not always) not be sweating, and will have alterations of their mental status including passing out completely. It is more commonly seen in the very young, the very old, and in debilitated patients, but one form called exertional heat stroke tends to affect athletes. If heat stroke is suspected, call 911 or bring that person to the hospital immediately.
The best way to deal with heat-related problems is to be proactive in their prevention. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothing to help block the sun, and also keep the body cool. Take breaks to cool off, rest, and rehydrate. When it’s really hot (like when there is a heat advisory in effect) you may need to take breaks frequently or avoid being outdoors altogether. But when it comes to water, be careful not to overdo it – it is actually possible to drink too much water, which leads to a different set of problems.
Check out my blog post on staying safe in the summer for more tips on avoiding heat illness.