Beat the Heat – Heat-Related Illnesses and Safety

August 12, 2021

By: Christopher Freer, DO, FACEP Senior VP Emergency and Hospitalist Medicine, RWJBarnabas Health

Summer is here! While the summer brings with it warm and pleasant weather, it can also introduce high temperatures and humidity that stress the body’s ability to cool itself, leading to dangerous and in some cases deadly conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year there are over 600 heat-related deaths in the United States. There are three major forms of heat illness to be aware of: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke and there are ways to be smart about the heat and avoid all three.

Heat cramps are muscle spasms that usually affect the arms, legs or stomach. They occur when fluid and salt lost by heavy sweating are not replenished. Although heat cramps can be very painful, they usually do not result in permanent damage. Drinking plenty of fluids can prevent these uncomfortable conditions.

Heat exhaustion is more serious than heat cramps. It occurs when sweating causes the body to lose water and salt (electrolytes), resulting in a reduction of blood volume. The symptoms of heat exhaustion often include:

  • Headache
  • heavy sweating
  • intense thirst
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • loss of coordination and appetite
  • nausea
  • cool and moist skin
  • weak and rapid pulse

Victims of heat exhaustion should make an appointment to be examined by a health care professional and should avoid strenuous activity for at least one day following recovery.

Heat stroke is the most dangerous heat ailment. Sweating is the body’s most effective means of heat removal. As heat stroke begins, sweating stops and body temperature can rise to critical levels. Heat stroke is more likely to occur in older adults and cause death if not immediately treated by a health care professional. The early symptoms of heat stroke may include:

  • high body temperature
  • distinct absence of sweating
  • hot, red or flushed dry skin
  • rapid pulse
  • difficulty breathing
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • high blood pressure

Advanced symptoms may include seizures, convulsions, or loss of consciousness.

If you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from any heat-related illness, it is essential to seek immediate medical attention.

Heat illnesses can be serious and, in some cases, deadly, but there are ways to protect yourself. To avoid heat-related illnesses:

  • Drink plenty of liquids. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink; by then, there is a good chance you are already on your way to being dehydrated. Electrolyte drinks are good for replacing both water and minerals lost through sweating. Also, avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages when spending a day in the sun.
  • Wear sunscreen. A sunburn will inhibit your skin’s ability to sweat
  • Watch the news. Your local news station will alert you on days when hot weather has the potential to pose a danger.
  • Take cool baths or showers. Cool water lowers body heat 25 times faster than cool air.
  • Wear light clothing. Loose-fitting clothing allows sweat to evaporate.
  • With physician’s approval, use salt tablets.
  • Avoid hot foods and heavy meals
  • Stay in air-conditioned areas. If your home does not have air conditioning, spend time in public facilities like your local library or mall
  • Be alert. Do not ignore the danger signs of heat-related illnesses. If you feel uncomfortable, take a break. If symptoms persist, contact a health care professional.

For more information about heat-related conditions please visit: www.rwjbh.org