Keep your cool: How to avoid heat-related illnesses |

Keep your cool: How to avoid heat-related illnesses

Tamara Burns, RN
Tamara Burns, RN

It’s that time of year where heat-related illnesses are on the rise in the Sierra Nevada.

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 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 straightforward. If you, or anyone else, has mild or moderate symptoms of a heat-related illness; drink plenty of fluids (avoid caffeine and alcohol); take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath; and 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 temperature reaches 104, this is a medical emergency. If you suspect someone has heat stroke, also called sunstroke, call 911 immediately. Get the patient out of the sun, and help cool them with ice water or a fan until paramedics arrive, or proceeding to the nearest emergency department.

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 drinks 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.

With the presence of COVID-19 in our community, it is important to know coronavirus symptoms can be similar to a heat-related illness. Call Barton Health’s COVID-19 Healthline, 530-600-1999, if you have experienced any of the following symptoms in the last 14 days:

• Fever or chills/rigors/shaking

• Muscle or body aches or pain

• Cough

• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

• Headache

• Sore Throat

• New loss of taste or smell

• Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

• Fatigue

• Congestion or runny nose

Tami Burns, RN, NBC-HWC, is a Registered Nurse at Barton Family Medicine and at Barton Health’s Respiratory Urgent Care facility. She is a member of the COVID-19 Bioethics Committee as well as Barton’s Crisis Intervention Team supporting healthcare workers in the local response to the coronavirus.

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