Health and Wellness from Humana - Summer Heat and Health

July 21, 2011

Woman relaxing from biking

How to prevent heatstroke when the temperature soars

The hottest days of summer are here. Very high temperatures can put a great deal of stress on your body. High humidity or physical activity can make the effects of the heat even more dangerous. Summer weather can bring on a number of heat-related health problems that can lead to heatstroke, which can be deadly. So now is the time to learn how to recognize and prevent heat-related health problems.

How your body keeps its cool

This is the way the Mayo Clinic staff describes how your body controls its temperature. Your body's natural heat, together with heat from the outside, changes your internal temperature. Your body needs to keep its temperature in a normal range. Normal is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

In hot weather, your body cools itself by sweating. The evaporation helps control body temperature. But if it's very hot, or if you are active, sweating just isn't enough. It's hard for your body to keep your temperature in check. And high humidity makes it worse. It keeps sweat from evaporating quickly and releasing the heat. Heat illnesses result when your body gains heat faster than it can release it.

Three degrees of heat illness

Heat cramps. Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms, usually in the belly, arms, or legs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says people who sweat a lot during heavy exercise are likely to get them. Sweat lowers the body's salt and fluid levels, causing the painful cramps. Heat cramps may also be a sign of a more serious illness called heat exhaustion. If you have heart problems or are on a low-salt diet, get help right away. If medical attention is not needed, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place.
  • Drink clear juice or a sports beverage.
  • Wait several hours after the cramps are gone to return to your activity.
  • Get medical help if your cramps don't ease up within an hour.

Heat exhaustion. This illness may come on suddenly, or develop after a few days of being in the heat. It is a serious condition. These are the signs the staff of the Mayo Clinic wants you to watch for:

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Feeling faint Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Low blood pressure upon standing
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache

If you experience any of these, act fast. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can easily lead to heat stroke. Here are the steps to take

  • Drink cool, nonalcoholic beverages.
  • Rest.
  • Take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath.
  • Seek an air-conditioned place.
  • Wear lightweight clothing.
  • If symptoms get worse or last longer than an hour, get medical help.

Heatstroke. This is a very serious, life-threatening condition. It happens when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. During heatstroke, says the CDC, the body's temperature rises fast. Sweating stops and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees or higher within 10 minutes. Heatstroke can cause death or permanent injury if emergency care is not provided.

Though they may vary, here are some of the warning signs of heatstroke:

  • A very high body temperature of 103 degrees or more.
  • Red, hot, and dry skin. No sweating.
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

Heatstroke is a matter of life or death. If you see someone with these warning signs, have someone call 9-1-1 or get medical help. And take these actions right away:

  • Get the victim to a shady area.
  • Cool the victim fast, however you can. For example, place the person in a tub of cold water or a cool shower. Spray the person with cool water from a garden hose. Sponge the person with cool water. If the humidity is low, cover the person in a cool, wet sheet and fan him or her.
  • Watch the person's body temperature. Continue cooling until it drops to 101 or 102 degrees.
  • Call the hospital ER for further instructions if the emergency team is delayed.
  • Do not give the victim alcohol to drink.

Who is at greatest risk?

A number of things can put you at higher risk of heat-related illnesses. They include:

  • Being 65 years or age or older, or four years of age or younger.
  • Obesity
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Heart disease
  • Mental illness
  • Poor circulation
  • Sunburn
  • Alcohol use
  • The use of certain prescription medicines. Some examples are allergy and cold medicine, diet pills, blood pressure medicine, water pills, some mental health and seizure medicine, laxatives, and thyroid pills.

It's important to know that anyone can suffer heat-related illness. In fact, some of the strongest athletes can be at risk. That was true in the case of Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings. Just 27, he passed out with heatstroke at training camp and later died. The Korey Stringer Institute for the prevention of heatstroke was founded in his honor.

There are two types of heatstroke: exertional and nonexertional, or classic. Exertional heatstroke can happen when you exercise heavily in the heat. According to the Korey Stringer Institute, or KSI, at the University of Connecticut, "Exertional heatstroke can happen when people do strenuous physical activity for a long period of time in a hot environment." Classic heatstroke more often happens to the elderly, persons in poor health and the very young.

As the KSI reports, "Exertional heatstroke has had a 100% survival rate when immediate cooling via cold water immersion or aggressive whole body cold water dousing was initiated within 10 minutes of collapse."

How can you prevent heat-related illness and heatstroke?

The staff of the Mayo Clinic offers these tips to use when the temperature rises:

  • Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Don't get sunburned.
  • Seek a cooler place. Being in the shade is better than being in the sun. Being in air conditioning is one of the best things you can do.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to help your body sweat.
  • Be careful when taking certain medicines. Ask your doctor about any medicine you are taking.
  • Avoid hot spots. For example, let your hot car cool off before you drive it.
  • Let your body adjust to the heat over time.
  • Avoid heavy exercise in the heat. If you can't, then take breaks and drink plenty of water or sports beverages.

Watch out for the needs of the young and the old:

  • Never leave a child in a closed, parked car, even for one minute.
  • Make sure babies and children drink plenty of fluids.
  • Don't wrap babies in heavy blankets or clothing.
  • Keep children inside during the hottest hours of the day.
  • Visit older adults at risk at least twice a day. Watch for signs of heat illness.
  • Take them to air-conditioned locations. Shopping malls and libraries are good places to visit.
  • Make sure older adults have an electric fan and can take a cool shower or bath.

Athletes should follow these tips from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine:

  • Tell your coach or trainer anytime you don't feel well.
  • Give your body time to get used to hot, humid conditions. Slowly increase workout intensity and duration over a 10- to 14-day period.
  • Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Save heavy exercise for early morning or late evening. If you can't avoid the heat of midday, ease up on your workout. Take more and longer rest breaks.
  • When exercising outside, stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Drink up when it's hot and when it's not. You should have unlimited access to fluids.
  • Weigh yourself before and after practice to see how much fluid you lose in sweat. Check that urine color is pale like lemonade, not dark like apple juice.
  • Two hours before exercise, drink at least two cups of fluid.
  • During exercise, drink at least a cupful every 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Afterwards, drink three cups of fluid per pound of body weight lost through sweat.

Knowing about the dangers of heat-related illnesses is the first step. Following these tips to prevent them can help you enjoy a safer summer.

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