Beat the heat this summer
By: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
If you are like most Northlanders, you welcome summer with open arms. After a week or more of heat and humidity, however, you might be wishing your dose of summer came with a little less intensity.
Warm temperatures can cause a number of heat-related illnesses:
Heat rash, otherwise known as prickly heat, is a read or pink rash characterized by dots or tiny pimples. It is usually found on body areas that are covered by clothing and most often affects babies. The rash develops when sweat ducts become blocked and swell. This leads to discomfort and itching.
To avoid heat rash, dress your child in as few clothes as possible during hot weather. Keep skin cool and dry. Heat rash can usually be effectively treated at home, however if it doesn’t go away after three or four days, if it appears to be getting worse or if your child develops a fever, contact your primary care physician.
Heat cramps occur in muscles during or after exercise. Calf or thigh muscles are the most often affected, but abdominal muscle cramps can also occur. Signs of heat cramps include muscle twitching or spasms, muscles feeling hard and lumpy, tenderness in the muscles, nausea, vomiting, weakness and fatigue.
To prevent heat cramps, drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise. Sports drinks work to replace water along with sugar sodium and other nutrients.
Heat edema, or swelling, often affects the hands and feet. Heat causes the blood vessels to expand (dilate) so gravity forces body fluid to flow into the extremities. Older adults have an increased risk of heat edema.
To avoid heat edema, find a shaded spot or remain indoors, in the air conditioning, if possible. Sit with your feet propped to decrease the effects of gravity.
Heat syncope, or fainting, occurs when your blood pressure drops suddenly and you faint or lose consciousness. Symptoms that can lead to fainting include feeling lightheaded especially when you change positions (for instance go from sitting to standing) and pale, cool and moist skin.
People who have not acclimated to a warm environment are at increased risk for heat syncope. Being dehydrated is another risk factor. Lying down in a cool place while sipping a cool drink (water) usually leads to a rapid recovery. If you experience fainting repeatedly, it may be due to factors other than the heat (nervous system, metabolic or cardiovascular problems) and requires medical evaluation.
Heat exhaustion occurs when a person can’t sweat enough to cool the body. It can be caused by loss of fluids or loss of electrolytes and often develops when a person is working or engaging in a high level of activity in a hot environment without drinking enough liquids to replenish those lost through sweating.
Symptom of heat exhaustion include: fatigue, weakness, headache, dizziness, nausea and pale skin that is cool and moist. Mild heat exhaustion does not cause a decrease in mental alertness, but it can cause fainting. Mild cases can usually be treated at home. Find a cool place to lie down or sit with your feet up. Rehydrate with water or a sports drink.
If not treated, heat exhaustion can become moderate to severe and can lead to heatstroke.
Heatstroke occurs with the body fails to regulate its own temperature and body temperature rises to dangerous levels – often 105°F or higher. Symptoms of heatstroke include: loss of consciousness for more than a few seconds, seizures, difficulty breathing, rectal temperature of 104°F or higher, confusion, restlessness, anxiety, increased heart rate, heavy sweating or sweating that has stopped, severe vomiting and diarrhea.
Heatstroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 and follow directions given you. This may include moving the person to a cool place, removing unnecessary clothing, sponging or spraying cool (not cold) water on the person’s body and applying ice packs to the groin, neck and armpits. If the person is alert enough to swallow, give fluids for hydration.
Do not give the person aspirin or acetaminophen to reduce high body temperature caused by the heat. Do not immerse the person in an ice bath.
The best way to beat the heat is to work at staying cool during the hot summer days. Some tips for doing this include:
Wear loose-fitting clothing that is appropriate to the weather.
Fill a spray bottle with water and keep it in the refrigerator to spritz yourself when hot.
Use fans to circulate the air.
If you do not have air conditioning at your home, visit an air conditioned location such as the library or shopping mall for a few hours to cool off.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol. They promote dehydration.
Drink plenty of water, along with sports drinks or other sources of electrolytes.
Alter your pattern of outdoor exercise so you take advantage of cooler times of the day.
Or, decrease your level of exercise to decrease your level of exertion.
Take a cool shower.
Use common sense. Sit in the shade or stay indoors during the hottest part of the day.
Summer. It seems we wait so long for it to get here, and then when it does it overwhelms us with temperatures and humidity that can cause heat-related illnesses. Keep cool this summer by staying hydrated and staying out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. With a few small changes to your normal routine and habits, you beat the heat and enjoy each day of our summer in the Northland.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.