Keep your cool: How to avoid heat-related illnesses
About the author
Tamara Burns, RN is a nurse at Barton Family Medicine.
It’s that time of year where heat-related illnesses are on the rise for locals and visitors alike.
Heat illnesses include dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It is important to understand the differences, especially when exercising in an area like Lake Tahoe with higher altitudes and higher temperatures.
Dehydration occurs when the body does not have enough fluid to carry out normal functions. Young children, older adults and people with chronic illnesses are most at risk. Common causes include intense diarrhea, vomiting or excessive sweating. Not drinking enough water during hot weather or exercise also may cause dehydration.
Mild to moderate dehydration symptoms include a dry, sticky mouth; fatigue; headache; feeling thirsty; not urinating; dry skin; constipation; and feeling dizzy or lightheaded. You may be able to reverse dehydration by drinking more fluids, but severe dehydration requires medical treatment.
Heat exhaustion can occur after a prolonged dehydration period. Triggers that cause the body to overheat include extended time in higher temperatures, and strenuous activity. Symptoms may appear suddenly, or develop over time, particularly after extended periods of exercise.
Possible symptoms of heat exhaustion include confusion; headache; muscle cramps; nausea; pale skin; fatigue; and rapid heartbeat.
Treatment for dehydration and heat exhaustion is straight forward. If you, or anyone else, has mild or moderate symptoms of a heat-related illness, I recommend to:
Drink plenty of fluids (avoid caffeine and alcohol)
Take a cool shower/bath/sponge bath
Remove any tight or unnecessary clothing
If this does not provide relief within an hour, contact a doctor because heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related injury. If the body’s core reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit, this is a medical emergency!
If you suspect someone has heat stroke, also called sunstroke, call 911 immediately. Help cool the patient until paramedics arrive. The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) released new guidelines in June suggesting that heat stroke victims need immediate cooling before going to a hospital.
Symptoms of heat stroke include fainting, which may be the first sign; nausea; altered mental state such as a person being agitated, aggressive or confused; dizziness or feeling lightheaded; red, hot and dry skin; rapid heartbeat; muscle weakness or cramps; throbbing headache; and seizures.
The safest approach is prevention and education. In hot weather, drink fluids regularly to help prevent dehydration and heat-related illness. Avoid waiting until you feel thirsty, when you may already be dehydrated. Monitor fluid loss during hot weather, illness or exercise, and consume liquids to replace water loss. Sports beverages can replace salts and minerals after you sweat. Wear sun protection, including a brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Take breaks in the shade and wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing.
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