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Be careful on very hot days

POSTED June 20, 2012 8:39 a.m.
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Everyone, I am quite sure, noticed how hot it was last Sunday, June 17. But few people are aware that the official high temperature for that day was 103 degrees, which tied the record previously set in 1945. Already, this year, it feels drier and hotter than 2011, in particular, and summer has not even arrived yet! This gives pause for a reminder about the health threats of the high temperatures of the coming summer days. Summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere of the earth on June 20 at 7:09 p.m.

With the hot weather pattern setting in, it is important to be aware of the threat of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and what the signs and symptoms are for these kinds of medical problems. Everyone can become victim of heat stroke and heat exhaustion (I had a case of heat exhaustion about 14 years ago and it was not fun), but people who are significantly overweight have diabetes, or other medical problems are at a particularly higher risk. Those who live without air conditioning may, over the course of several days of exposure to high heat without relief, may also be vulnerable.

Heat stroke is the more serious medical condition which is caused by too much exposure to heat without sufficient hydration. Symptoms include a very high body temperature (104 degrees or greater), very hot and dry skin, the victim may suffer from convulsions and they potentially may lose consciousness. Heat stroke can come on quickly and without warning. Death from heat stroke is a real possibility, as is damage to the brain and other organs.

Heat exhaustion, while not as life-threatening as heat stroke, still poses a serious medical risk and cannot be treated lightly or ignored. The symptoms can include cool, clammy skin, sweating, dry mouth, thirst, fatigue and weakness, headache, cramps, weak or rapid pulse and slightly higher than normal body temperature. If not attended to, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.

A critical step to avoid heat stroke or heat exhaustion is to drink plenty of fluids. But hydration alone may not be enough. Constant sweating tends to deplete the body of important electrolytes, so while drinking water helps greatly, eating properly and consuming electrolyte replacements will also help. You should avoid drinks with lots of sugar, alcohol or caffeine. A rule of thumb I have learned over the years is that once you become thirsty, you are already behind the dehydration "curve." In other words, you should be drinking water frequently throughout the day - not only when you feel thirsty. When performing hard, physical labor or when in direct exposure to the sun and heat, the need for drinking water is greatly increased.

To treat for heat exhaustion, first make sure the patient's condition is not heat stroke, which is the more serious emergency. If you are sure it is only heat exhaustion, then take the following steps: move the person to a cool, shaded area and have them lie flat. Give them plenty of water, a diluted sports drink or, preferably, a non-sweetened electrolyte product such as the kind available for infants. Water is the most important and safest first step in treating heat exhaustion. Remove excess clothing (shoes and hats retain a lot of body heat), cool the person down with wet cloths, fan the person if necessary, and take the person's body temperature frequently. If the body temperature nears or exceeds 104 degrees, you have to assume that it is a heat stroke situation, which requires emergency transportation to the hospital. Do not give the person any alcoholic beverages!

The initial treatment of heat stroke is essentially the same as treatment for heat exhaustion, except that the cool down steps need to be more aggressive. While waiting for emergency medical responders, if possible, immerse the patient in cool water, place ice packs on the patient's head, back of the neck, armpits, soles of their feet and groin area, and give them plenty of water to drink. The person must be able to drink the water on their own - if they are unconscious or semi-conscious, do not try to administer any water.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can come on quickly and without apparent warning, so the best way to avoid these conditions is through prevention. Do not allow yourself to become overheated, drink plenty of fluids even when you do not feel thirsty, dress with loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, and if working under the sun, take frequent breaks and stay away from sugars and alcohol.

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