Avoid heat stroke – it’s a killer

Believe it or not, extreme heat can be even deadlier than extreme cold. Every year when the temperatures go up, so do heat-related illnesses and deaths.

The elderly or those suffering from high blood pressure can be particularly vulnerable to heat stroke and heat exhaustion, both of which can lead to death. Here’s what you should know to protect yourself this summer.

What is heat stroke?
Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness and is a life-threatening emergency.

We normally cool ourselves by sweating and radiating heat through the skin. Extreme heat, high humidity, exercising in the hot sun, and dehydration can cause this system to fail. If a person cannot sweat enough to cool their body, their internal temperature may rise to dangerously high levels, causing heat stroke.

The body does not sweat enough to regulate its own temperature and so the internal temperature rises to dangerous levels. A body temperature above 40.6 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit) is critical.

The elderly, iants, people who work outdoors, and those on certain types of medications are most susceptible to heat stroke.

What is heat exhaustion?
Heat exhaustion, while generally a milder form of heat illness, also places individuals at risk.

When the body is exposed to prolonged heat or extreme temperatures, it reacts by increasing the circulation of surface blood. Although this cools the body, it also means the heart must pump harder. People with cardiac trouble and the elderly are vulnerable to heart attack even before heat stroke sets in.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion?
Each individual may experience symptoms differently, but the most common are:

Heat exhaustion:

  • Pale with cool, moist skin
  • Profuse sweating
  • Faintness, or fainting
  • Headache, weakness, thirst, and nausea
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Higher body temperature than normal

Heat stroke

  • Faintness, or fainting
  • Headache, weakness, thirst, and nausea
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Higher body temperature than normal
  • Agitation or confusion
  • Sluggishness or fatigue
  • Hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizure
  • Loss of consciousness

How is heat illness treated?
Medical attention is necessary in the case of heat stroke, but some first aid measures can also be applied. First, move the person indoors or out of the worst of the heat and elevate the feet. Remove clothing and gently apply cool water to the skin, and fan skin to help evaporate the water.  Apply ice packs or anything cold (for example, cans of pop from a cooler) to the groin and armpits, as this will help lower body temperature quickly.

The same treatments help to reduce heat exhaustion, but if the body temperature and heart rate do not return to normal, medical attention is also advised.

How can heat stroke and heat exhaustion be prevented?
There are precautions that can help protect you against the adverse effects of heat stroke. These include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids during outdoor activities and throughout the day, especially on hot days. Set reminders for yourself to be sure that you don’t forget to drink before you’re thirsty, and drink more than you need to quench your thirst. Avoid tea, coffee, soda, and alcohol as these can lead to dehydration.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a hat, sunglasses and using an umbrella. Choose lightweight, loose-fitting clothing in light colors.
  • Stay aware of your temperature and look for early signs that your body is reacting poorly to the heat. One of these is heat edema, or swelling of the fingers and feet and ankles. Another is heat rash.
  • Schedule activity for cooler times of the day.
  • Increase time spent outdoors gradually to get your body used to the heat.
  • Try to spend as much time indoors as possible on very hot and humid days.
  • If you live in a hot climate and have a chronic heart condition condition, breathing condition, or high blood pressure, or are taking diuretics, talk to your physician about extra precautions you can take.