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Hot-weather health threats

By Melissa Tennen, Contributing Writer

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Mother Nature has turned up the heat. It’s summer – and hot weather comes with the territory. But be careful. Too much heat can be dangerous.

About 600 people die each year from the heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Normally, the body cools itself by sweating. Sometimes, though, sweating isn’t enough. When this happens, the body cannot cool itself. This can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Heat cramps

People who sweat a lot when they are active are more prone to heat cramps. Too much sweating can deplete the body of salt and moisture, leading to heat cramps.

Muscle pain or spasm in the abdomen, arms or legs due to heat cramps usually occurs when you are physically active. Heat cramps may seem like a mild annoyance, but don’t ignore them. They can be a symptom of heat exhaustion. People with heart problems or those on low-salt diets should call a doctor if they get heat cramps.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is usually caused by prolonged exposure to high temperatures over several hot days or too much physical activity in extreme heat. Sodium and potassium are important minerals that help regulate fluids in and out of your body’s cells. Too little to drink, along with out-of-balance body fluids, can cause heat exhaustion.

Those most vulnerable to heat-related illness are infants, very young children, the elderly, people with certain physical illnesses and those who work or exercise in hot temperatures.

Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Cool, moist skin
  • Weak pulse
  • Fast, shallow breathing

Symptoms of heat exhaustion should not be ignored. They can lead to heat stroke. One sign of heat stroke is confusion. If someone is confused, has a change in behavior, has a seizure or passes out, call 9-1-1 right away. Anyone with other symptoms of heat exhaustion needs prompt emergency medical care.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke occurs when the body cannot regulate its temperature. This is a life-threatening condition. The sweating mechanism fails and the body can’t cool down. The body temperature becomes extremely high, sometimes above 110 degrees F, and can cause damage to major organs.

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • An extremely high body temperature. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F.
  • Red, hot and dry skin without sweating.
  • Quick pulse.
  • Throbbing headache.
  • Dizziness.
  • Nausea.
  • Confusion.
  • Loss of consciousness.

Call 9-1-1 if you suspect heat stroke.

Prevention

Here’s how you can protect yourself and your family from heat-related illness:

  • Stay well hydrated, especially if you are in the heat for extended time.
  • If you are being treated for a medical condition, ask your doctor how much you should be drinking. You may need even more fluid if you are exercising or working in the heat.
  • Limit your intake of fluids that contain caffeine, alcohol or a lot of sugar. These can cause dehydration.
  • Stay indoors, preferably in air conditioning, on very hot days. When the temperature is above 90, indoor fans won’t help.
  • Visit an air conditioned mall or library for a few hours to help your body cool down in extreme heat if you don’t have an air conditioner.
  • Take a cool shower or bath.
  • Limit your outdoor activities to the morning and evening. Try to stay in the shade at other times.
  • Cut down on your exercise in extreme heat, or exercise in the cooler times of day.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Wear a wide-brimmed hat in the sun.
  • Ask your doctor about your medications. Certain ones can affect body temperature regulation.
  • Watch for any signs of heat-related illness in the elderly, infants and young children.

SOURCES:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed: 05/20/2009
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke: what you need to know. Accessed: 05/20/2009