Keep yourself safe this summer with these tips on coping with heat-related illnesses


young man suffering heat exhaustion

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As the temperatures soar, many are naturally heading outdoors for some much-needed fun in the sun. But whether you're exercising, playing sports, heading to the beach or simply catching some rays, it's important to remember the risks associated with prolonged exposure to our friend the day star. What are the signs you should look out for and how can you protect yourself and others from harm?


Heat and your heart

Put simply, heat illness occurs when the amount of heat your body absorbs is greater than the amount you lose.The adverse effects of raised body temperature can appear suddenly. Working — or working out — in the heat can cause you to sweat heavily and become dehydrated. Medscape says that problems with heat exhaustion and heatstroke generally occur "in individuals who lack the capacity to modulate the environment." This, they say, means infants, the elderly and the chronically ill.

It might seem obvious that those with compromised health would have problems with the heat. Raised temperatures and humidity coupled with strenuous physical activity can mean a lot of stress for the body. Breathing becomes more difficult, sweating increases and the heart is under pressure as the body tries to lose heat by pumping more blood to the skin. According to the National Heart Foundation, the more you sweat, the more dehydrated you become meaning a decrease in the volume of blood and an increase in work for the heart.


Taking the heat

But even if you think you're in generally good health, it's important to take sun safety seriously. You may be at risk for heat illnesses if:

  • You are not used to high temperatures and haven't yet acclimatized to the temperatures
  • You are taking certain medicines - like beta blockers, diuretics or those that alter your sweat response
  • You are elderly or a child
  • You are overweight or obese
  • You drank alcohol before or during exposure to heat or high humidity
  • You are not drinking enough fluids
  • You are wearing too much clothing

Excess heat affects the central nervous system and can in time lead to severe problems like organ damage, unconsciousness and death. In younger children and older adults, the body is less able to cope with changes in body temperature because they both have difficulty remaining hydrated. Even if you are normally fit, exertion in hot weather or sudden exposure to heat — in a heatwave or on vacation — can put sudden stress on the body's systems. Make sure you allow your body to get used to the heat and humidity and allow yourself a chance to work up to any extra exertion you are planning.


Three stages

The symptoms of heat illness come in three stages: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat cramps are the first sign of heat illness and may result in:

  • Muscle pain and cramps in the legs or abdomen
  • Severe cramps in the hands, calves or feet
  • Exhaustion
  • Thirst
  • Very heavy sweating

MayoClinic says "Heat cramps are painful, involuntary muscle spasms that usually occur during heavy exercise in hot environments. The spasms may be more intense and more prolonged than are typical nighttime leg cramps. Fluid and electrolyte loss often contribute to heat cramps." Heat cramps are not too serious and can be treated by resting and cooling down, replacing electrolytes and massaging and stretching the affected muscles. If the symptoms are not treated, however, you may experience heat exhaustion.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Sweating and cold skin
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Thirst
  • Dark urine

If you suspect heat exhaustion, WebMD recommends you immediately get out of the heat, find air conditioning and rest. You should drink plenty of cold fluids — water, juice or electrolyte drinks — take a cool shower or bath and turn. Try not to use too much ice or get too cold, the whole idea is to reduce the effects of shock to the body.



The third stage is the most serious of all: heatstroke. According to Medscape: "Two forms of heatstroke exist. Exertional heatstroke (EHS) generally occurs in young individuals who engage in strenuous physical activity for a prolonged period of time in a hot environment. Classic nonexertional heatstroke (NEHS) more commonly affects sedentary elderly individuals, persons who are chronically ill, and very young persons." NEHS affects people during heat waves and happens more often when people who are not used to hot weather suddenly find themselves in a hot climate. Both types of heatstroke are associated with high morbidity and mortality, especially when cooling therapy is delayed.

The symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • A body temperature in excess of 104F or 40C
  • Extreme confusion or delirium
  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Increased, weak heart rate
  • A decrease in sweating and hot, dry skin
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Extreme confusion or irrational behavior
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Blood in the urine

Heatstroke requires immediate treatment. If it is left untreated, heatstroke can cause swelling to the heart, the brain and other organs and the damage increases the longer treatment is delayed. If effective emergency medical treatment is not administered quickly, the organs can fail.


Prevention and treatment

Please, never leave your dog in the car even if you crack the window and even if it's just for a few seconds.

MayoClinic offers some red-hot advice on how to prevent heatstroke. Wear light, loose-fitting to allow air to circulate, wear a hat, drink plenty of fluids, avoid physical exertion when the sun is at its hottest and allow yourself to get used to an increase in heat and humidity especially if your health makes you vulnerable. If you suspect someone is suffering the effects of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, get them inside or into shade, loosen clothing and help them cool down — gently — with whatever you can find: a shower, a cold compress, ice wrapped in a towel. Make sure they drink but only if conscious. Do not give them salt tablets that haven't been diluted in water or any medications. Check out these tips for first aid and, if you are in any doubt about the severity of the affects of heat illness, get help immediately — call 911. Every second can save a life.

And, while we're about it, remember that we are the lucky ones. We have our own built in system for controlling heat: sweating. Not all creatures are so lucky. How many of us would leave a child in a car on a hot day? Your car is a greenhouse. So, why would you allow a pet to suffer that way? Before you leave your dog in the car, even with the window cracked, check out this chart and remember how 80 degrees outside can pass 100 degrees inside in only 20 minutes. The NFL's  Tyrann Mathieu recently highlighted the problem by showing us just how difficult it is to deal with the conditions inside a car in summer even with the luxury of sweat glands.