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Protecting Your Health from Summer Heat

Higher than normal temperatures are being predicted for most of the United States this summer. Extreme heat can affect the young and the old particularly hard causing heat-related illnesses. Dr. Robert Shesser of George Washington University Medical Center talked to us about what we need to keep an eye out for to make sure that we beat the heat this summer.

When temperatures climb above 90 degrees and stay there for several days, people, especially the young and the old, or those with medical conditions are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. If left untreated, heat-related illnesses can cause serious injury and possibly death. Some signs of heat-related illnesses include nausea, dizziness, flushed or pale skin, heavy sweating and headaches. Victims of heat related illnesses should be moved to a cool location, given water to drink and cool wet cloths to their skin.

The number of people suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke tend to rise in the summer during a heat wave. The best thing to do during a heat wave is to slow down, avoid exerting yourself during the heat of the day and stay indoors as much as possible. If people are in a home with no air conditioning, they should try to stay on the lowest floor away from sunshine. Heat can affect anyone but it is more likely to affect young children, the elderly and people with medical conditions. For example, people with medical conditions that cause poor blood circulation and those that take medications to get rid of water from the body (diuretics) are at a greater risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

On days that are really hot and humid our bodies cooling mechanisms are not as efficient as they should be, and it is easy to overheat because sweat doesn't evaporate. The evaporation of sweat from our skin accounts for 90% of our cooling ability.

Heat exhaustion can be avoided by drinking lots of water to replace fluids lost. People should drink fluids because they know they should and not because they are thirsty. Unfortunately, a person who is on their way to being dehydrated, does not always realize it and people shouldn't count on feeling thirsty to tip them off that they are dehydrated.

Heat exhaustion is not a life-threatening illness. Heat exhaustion usually occurs when people exercise heavily or lose body fluids through heavy sweating. Symptoms include headaches, sweating, fatigue, exhaustion, nausea, lightheadedness and maybe heat cramps in muscles. Usually rest and water will correct heat exhaustion or it can be treated with one teaspoon of salt dissolved in a liter of water and sipped slowly over an hour. The teaspoon of salt helps to replace electrolytes.

Heat stroke on the other hand, is life-threatening. If a person is suffering from heat stroke and they do not get the proper treatment they can die. Heat stroke occurs when the person's body stops sweating. The body temperature can rise so high that brain damage and death can occu if the body is not cooled down quickly. Symptoms of heat stroke include headache, flushed or dry skin, and rapid pulse. When a person suffers from heat stroke they are dehydrated and its important to get fluids to them as quickly as possible. A person suffering from heat stroke may be incoherent, disoriented, confused or even unconscious. To treat heat stroke, externally, the neck and head should be cooled down first by placing cool, wet cloths on the forehead and neck, armpits and groin.

Here are some tips on staying cool:

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing because light colors will reflect away some of the sun's energy. Hats are also a good idea to use to block the sun.

  • Drink water or some type of liquid often. Try and stay away from alcohol and caffeine since they dehydrate the body.

  • Eat small meals and eat more often. Avoid foods that are high in protein

  • Don't use salt tablets unless a doctor advises you to

  • Try and do strenuos activity during the coolest part of the day which is 4-7am (yeah, right!)

How can a person tell if they are at risk for heat stroke? Sometimes a person doesn't even realize they are in danger until its too late because they don't realize that their body isn't functioning properly.

Dr. Robert Shesser's Comments:

"Its all pretty common sense stuff," says Dr. Robert Shesser, Chairman of Emergency Medicine at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington D.C. "People just need to remember that they need to take it easy, try and do stuff in the morning or in the evening. Heat stroke tends to effect the young and the old or people with other medical conditions more than anyone else."

"Heat stroke is much more severe, their thinking becomes abnormal and they start acting crazy. They're obviously very ill and in need of medical attention. One of the other characteristics that we see with heat stroke is that people stop sweating. Moist climates are much worse because people don't evaporate sweat as well in moist environments."

"The elderly and people with chronic diseases are at risk because they are on medications that impair the process of sweating or they live in buildings that don't have proper ventilation. They often fail to recognize the symptoms and end up real sick before they even know it. First aid for a person suffering from heat stroke involves getting them out of the sun, loosening clothing and at the hospital we mist them with water to help cool them down. We don't advise using ice any longer---cold ice and water causes the blood vessels in your skin to constrict. Remember your pets, don’t leave them in the car and make sure they have water to drink. The most important thing to remember is to keep cool for at least part of the day and be sure to check on the elderly by being a good neighbor."

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