North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

June 17, 2011

Avoid heat-related illnesses this summer

Health Watch

By Steve Mullenix
The North Jefferson News

COMMENTARY — As we endure temperatures near the nineties, the concern of sun exposure and  heat related illnesses increases. Even when you’re having fun riding the boat at the lake, you can’t forget the ever-present risk of heat-related illnesses.  

These include dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke (also known as sun stroke).  It’s hard to imagine that being on a lake with billions and billions of gallons of water you can get dehydrated, but you can.  

However, by reducing excessive exposure, and taking other precautionary steps, most heat-related illnesses can be avoided.

Heat illness can strike virtually anyone. However, certain people are at greater risk, such as older people, the overweight, and those who drink too much alcohol. Also, certain medications, such as antihistamines, antipsychotics and some antibiotics, can make you more susceptible to heat-related illnesses as well.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking a medication that may raise concerns with sun and heat related exposure.


Dehydration is by far the most common heat-related concern. The symptoms of dehydration include:

• thirst

• fatigue

• irritability

• dry mouth

• feeling hot

Dehydration occurs when your body loses too much fluid. This can happen when you stop drinking water or lose large amounts of fluid through diarrhea, vomiting, sweating or exercise. Not drinking enough fluids can cause muscle cramps. You may feel faint. Usually your body can reabsorb fluid from your blood and other body tissues.

By the time you become severely dehydrated, you no longer have enough fluid in your body to get blood to your organs, and you may go into shock, which is a life-threatening condition.

Dehydration can occur to anyone of any age, but it is most dangerous for babies, small children and older adults. So, be a good neighor and check on that older person on your street this summer to make sure that he or she is staying cool.

Children who start complaining about being thirsty, or just seem irritable in the heat may have early signs of dehydration.  Get the child out of the sun and into a cool place. Have them drink plenty of cool fluids such as water or sports drinks. Avoid sugary fruit juices or sodas with more than 8 percent carbohydrates, as they are not absorbed as rapidly by the body. Take off any excess layers of clothes or bulky sports equipment to speed the cool-down process.  

Heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke all occur when your body cannot cool itself adequately.  Each is slightly different.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses large amounts of water and salt through excessive sweating, particularly through hard physical labor or exercise.  This loss of essential fluids can disturb circulation and interfere with brain function.   

Individuals with heart problems or on a low sodium diet may be particularly susceptible to heat exhaustion. The symptoms of heat exhaustion are  profuse sweating, fatigue, headache, dizziness, lose of appetite, nausea, vomiting, chills, weakness, excessive thirst, muscle cramps or aches, vision problems, flushing, agitation or irritability and sometimes even unconsciousness.

Heat cramps

Heat cramps, as with heat exhaustion, strikes an individual when the body loses excessive amounts of fluid and salt. This deficiency, accompanied by the loss of other essential nutrients such as potassium and magnesium, typically occurs during heavy exertion. The symptoms of heat cramps are painful cramps in the abdominal muscles, arms or legs.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is the most serious of heat-related illnesses and requires immediate attention. This condition occurs when the body suffers from long, intense exposure to heat and loses its ability to cool itself. In prolonged extreme heat the part of the brain that normally regulates body temperature malfunctions.  This decreases the body’s ability to sweat and therefore, cool down. The symptoms of this condition should be taken very seriously. They include: High body temperature (often more than 104 degrees F), nausea, vomiting, seizures, disorientation or delirium, hot dry skin, unconsciousness, coma, shortness of breath, decreased urination or blood in urine or stool.  

If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 for immediate medical assistance.

Here are the effects of air temperature on the body:

• 68 degrees F: Ambient Temperature – Body is comfortable – Heart Rate is Normal

• 77 degrees F: Body will experience light sweating

• 86 degrees F: Some discomfort, blood cools at skin surface, moderate sweating

• 104 degrees F: Heat exhaustion, heavy sweating, rapid heart rate

113 degrees F: Heat stroke; sweating stops; hot, dry skin; body core temperature rises; danger of organ damage or death

The best defense again any of these conditions is prevention. Drink plenty of fluids (nonalcoholic), regardless of your activity level. If you wait until you are thirsty, then it is too late.

If your physician has limited the amount of fluid to drink, or has you on a “water pill” (diuretic), ask him or her how much you should drink during the hot weather.

Don’t drink liquids that contain caffeine, alcohol or large amounts of sugar.  These types of liquids actually cause you to lose more body fluids. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.

By following simple common sense, most heat-related illnesses can be avoided. Just remember to consume enough fluids, limit the exposure, and watch for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness.