Soaring temperatures and oppressive humidity levels are slowly gripping much of the United States. The combination of extreme temperatures and relative humidity pushes heat indexes into triple digits, thus prompting local weather offices to issue heat advisories and warnings. Heat indexes that exceed 90 degrees can cause three types of heat related illnesses: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Each heat related illness exhibits unique warning signs and requires different set of treatment standards.
Heat related illnesses can escalate in a three-step process or they can manifest without severity progression. Painful muscle spasms in the legs and abdomen indicate the presence of heat cramps. The pain is so intense that it is difficult to ignore the warning signs. However, many people ignore the warning signs, often attributing the painful spasms to indigestion or strained muscles. A prime example of heat cramps occurred on national television during a recent Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. Dodgers’ first baseman, James, Loney, suddenly grabbed his leg after striking out. Team doctors later attributed the sudden pain to the stifling 105 degree heat index.
Heat exhaustion is a milder heat induced illness that develops after several hours of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate replacement of body fluids. Elderly people, people with high blood pressure, and people working or exercising in a hot environment are those most prone to heat exhaustion. Workers most at risk for heat exhaustion include those who work in the landscaping, construction, and highway maintenance fields. Athletes and people exerting energy outdoors for lengthy periods are also susceptible to heat exhaustion.
The first warning sign of heat exhaustion is a mild headache that slowly builds into a painful, throbbing sensation. This is the brain’s first attempt to alert the body that steps need to be taken in order to mitigate the effects of high temperatures and humidity. Heat exhaustion headaches most likely strengthen to the point that a victim feels dizzy or nauseous. Headaches, nausea, and dizzy spells are often mistaken for other medical conditions; hence heat exhaustion victims misinterpret the initial warning signs.
Heat exhaustion victims also feel physically exhausted, sometimes to the point that their knees buckle or their gait appears more like someone walking under the influence of alcohol. Nonetheless, even with these warning signs, victims tend to believe that taking a brief break from strenuous work or exercise is the antidote for expunging heat exhaustion warning signs. Generally, heat exhaustion victims do not receive medical care until people around them notice physical warning signs. The most obvious physical warning sign is the cool, pale, and moist skin of someone suffering from heat exhaustion. Severe heat exhaustion victims appear as if the blood has been flushed from their bodies.
The first step in caring for a heat exhaustion victim is moving the person to a cooler environment, preferably one that has cool air circulation. Loosen the victim’s clothing, and then apply cool water with a damp cloth or sponge on the victim’s exposed skin. The victim should be conscious, so give small amounts of cool water to drink; do not allow the victim to gulp copious amounts of water. If the victim’s condition does not improve, or it deteriorates into what you believe is a heat stroke, you must notify emergency personnel by calling 9-1-1. Heat stroke is a life threatening heat illness that includes the warning signs of changes in consciousness levels, high body temperature, red-hot skin, and rapid/weak pulse rates.
You can implement a number of measures in order to prevent heat exhaustion. First, physically demanding activities should be restricted to early morning or early evening hours. During summer, construction workers start their work day before dawn, or they work into the night. Second, drink plenty of fluids, especially those high in electrolytes. Sport drinks contain ample amounts of the regeneration mineral. Finally, take regular breaks from any task performed under extreme heat conditions. Find a place with cool air circulation, and then take a load off your feet for periods that exceed your normal break times.
Your body will thank you.