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Keeping Your Cool
As we are in some of the hottest days of the summer, it is important to remember and respect the power and potential of the heat and humidity during the monsoon season. Although those with chronic health problems as well as individuals over 65 and less than 2 years old are more susceptible to heat related illness, heat has the potential to impact even the fittest of individuals. Heat related problems typically will present in any of three common appearances: heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke.
Heat exhaustion typically develops from fluid and blood salt loss from excessive sweating, usually from hard or continuous exercise. As fluid volume depletes, blood flow is compromised to the body affecting brain function. Individuals with heart, lung or kidney problems may be particularly vulnerable to heat exhaustion. A parallel problem may develop in the body and presents as heat cramps. These same circulation compromises of the nervous system also may have an adverse impact to muscle function.
Heat stroke is the result of prolonged exposure to heat resulting in the body’s inability to cool itself with its normal thermoregulation mechanism. As the core temperature rises at 104F to 106F, the brain is affected and shuts down the sweating mechanism. When this occurs, the temperature continues to rise and impacts the most sensitive tissue to heat – the nervous system. This serious medical problem may result in death.
Symptoms of heat related illness may come on suddenly. Heat exhaustion commonly presents with heavy sweating, the source of fluid volume loss. The skin is cool and moist to touch. Headache is a common complaint along with nausea and vomiting. Dizziness and lightheadedness are the result of brain function compromise from reduced circulation. Fast heartbeat (tachycardia) is the result of low fluid volume as the heart attempts to compensate by increasing heart rate. Heat cramps, as the name implies, produce muscle spasm, weakness and pain. This may present either with activity or later during rest.
Heat stroke may present itself with either excessive sweating or, once thermoregulation has shut down, with red, hot and dry skin. As body temperature increases, signs of illness include confusion, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and fainting. As temperature rises, circulation changes such as either rapid or slow heartbeat and seizures may occur. This is a medical emergency and must be dealt with immediately to prevent death. Activation of EMS is vital when heat stroke is suspected – call 911.
The goal to treating the other heat related illnesses involves cooling the body and replenishing fluids. Move the individual to a cooler, shady area. Provide plenty of water and apply cold packs to the neck, armpits and groin. Exhaustion and cramps usually recover within hours without problems. If symptoms persist however, medical attention should be sought.
Be aware of these heat related illness as we move to the ‘dog days of summer’. Intervention is critical, but prevention is preferred, including adequate hydration, activity breaks and avoidance of prolonged heat/sun exposure. Here is an excellent link for additional information regarding heat related illness: https://www.cdc.gov/features/extremeheat/index.html
Bradford Croft, DO
East Flagstaff Family Medicine