Though memories of the past winter’s cold have yet to fade, attention is now directed to recognizing the risk of heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke in the warmer months ahead.
From 1999 to 2010, a total of 7,415 deaths in the United States — an average of 618 per year — were associated with exposure to excessive natural heat according to the National Vital Statistics System, mortality public use data files, 1999-2010. That’s more fatalities than from hurricanes, lightening, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, all combined, during the same time period.
Infants, children and the elderly are the most likely to suffer from heat stress, but it can happen to anybody. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke in time to seek treatment might save your life, or that of a loved one.
Heat exhaustion occurs when your body gets too hot. It may be triggered by several days of inadequate fluid intake during high temperatures, excessive exercise and heavy perspiration. Possible symptoms include heavy sweating, a rapid, weak heartbeat, muscle cramps, low blood pressure, weakness and dizziness, nausea, vomiting, paleness and fainting.
The American Academy of Family Physicians recommend that victims of heat exhaustion be monitored closely because heat exhaustion can quickly become a case of heat stroke. Seek medical attention immediately if the victim’s temperature rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat stroke is much more serious than heat exhaustion and can kill. People with heat stroke may seem confused. They may have seizures or go into a coma. Most people with heat stroke also have a fever. In extreme heat, high humidity, or vigorous physical exertion under the sun, the body may not be able to dissipate the heat and the body temperature rises, sometimes up to 106 Fahrenheit or higher.
Victims of heat stroke must receive immediate treatment to avoid permanent organ damage. First and foremost, cool the victim. Get the victim to a shady area, remove clothing, apply cool water to the skin, fan the victim to promote sweating and evaporation, and place ice packs under the armpits and groin. Notify emergency services (911) while monitoring body temperature and continuing cooling efforts until medical help arrives.
To prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke, stay indoors when the temperature is high. If you have to go out, try to do most taxing outdoor activities before 11 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Wear sunscreen on the exposed parts with SPF of 15 or more. Take a hat or an umbrella to protect yourself from the sun. Wear light colored, loose fitting clothes.
Drink lots of water; carry a bottle of water with you. Drink water or healthy fluids every 15 to 20 minutes, even if you are not thirsty. Monitor the color of your urine; if it is dark colored, you are dehydrated.
Heat-related illnesses often spike in the early weeks of the summer season. Then as people acclimate to the higher temperatures and good public health messaging is promoted with tips to stay cool and to avoid heat, the spikes in heat-related illness lessen in magnitude and frequency. Be aware, be alert and be ready to respond if heat-related illness comes upon you or your family. You can read more about heat stroke and heat exhaustion at the American Academy of Family Physicians, http://www.aafp.org.
Kathy Husek is the Epidemiologist at Madison County-London City Health District and can be reached at (740) 852-3065.