By Gordon Williams
Torrid summer days can leave you feeling sweltering, sweaty, and just plain wiped out. Heat can also expose you to illnesses that range from heat stroke to heart disease. In carrying out its mission to teach preparedness to one and all, the American Red Cross warns, “Extreme heat is deadly and kills more people than any other weather event.”
Everyone, young and old, should pay heed to the warning. After all, summers do seem to be getting longer and hotter, and extreme heat punishes everyone. But all the research shows the risk of heat-related episodes becomes greater as we age. “As we age, our ability to adequately respond to summer heat can become a serious problem,” says a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the government’s top medical research agency.
The Red Cross further warns heat can be dangerous not just to the elderly but also to infants, children, and pregnant women, those with pre-existing medical conditions, outdoor workers, and those without access to cooling centers. A recent report by ABC News discusses an apparent link between excessive heat and heart-related issues. Studies seem to show heat increasing the number of pollutants in the air–with those pollutants being particularly dangerous to anyone with a heart condition.
Since we can’t control the rise in summer temperatures, what we can do is learn the warning signs that heat is threatening our health. The NIH advisory sums up heat-related illness under the collective category of hyperthermia. Says NIH, “Hyperthermia can include heat stroke, heat edema (swelling in your ankles and feet when you get hot), heat syncope (sudden dizziness after exercising in the heat), heat cramps, and heat exhaustion.”
All these conditions can be dangerous but the most severe is heat stroke. “Heat stroke is a severe form of hyperthermia that occurs when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature,” the NIH says.
What should you look for if you suspect heat stroke? NIH says that “someone with a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit is likely suffering from heat stroke. Symptoms include fainting, a change in behavior [confusion, combativeness, staggering, possible delirium or coma], dry flushed skin and a strong rapid pulse, and lack of sweating.”
If you find someone showing signs of heat stroke, get help at once, since untreated heat stroke can kill. “Seek immediate medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult,” says NIH.
Heat exhaustion is not quite as serious as heat stroke, but it does require immediate attention and treatment, There are some differences in symptoms to help you determine whether you are dealing with heat stroke or exhaustion:
- Skin. Hot and dry with heat stroke, moist and warm with heat exhaustion.
- Breathing. Rapid and shallow with heat stroke, normal with heat exhaustion.
- Physical condition. Seizures, coma, and severe headache with heat stroke, headache, nausea, vomiting, fainting with heat exhaustion.
Heat cramps aren’t as dangerous as heat stroke or heat exhaustion but they can cause painful muscle spasms. Get medical help if the cramps last more than an hour or if the person has heart issues. Sunburn is always a risk in summertime.
As with any potential disaster, forewarned is forearmed. Keep monitoring news outlets so you know ahead of time when severe heat is on its way. Prepare in advance so you are ready to respond when temperatures soar.
Don’t rely on fans alone to keep cool during a heat wave. All the fan will do is move the hot air around. If you don’t have air conditioning can you go to a place that does have it? Will your community open cooling centers on very hot days and do you have a way of reaching them?
Is there a shopping mall or library or other public building that could offer respite from the heat? Plan ahead with friends and neighbors who will watch out for your well-being during heat waves–and whose well-being you will watch for. Isolation can kill if you don’t have a support network to turn to in an emergency.
Staying hydrated during heat waves is the key to staying safe. The Red Cross says the average person needs 3/4 of a gallon of water daily. Check to make sure you are drinking enough by checking the color of your urine. Dark yellow urine could mean you aren’t getting enough fluids. Consider sports drinks to replace salt and minerals you have sweated out.
Obviously, avoid strenuous activities during the heat of the day. Protect yourself and your pets by walking them early in the morning when it is cooler. Use sunscreen and protective clothing to protect you from sunburn. Finally, it should go without saying that you should never leave kids or animals inside a car. The temperature inside an enclosed vehicle can become hot enough to kill.