It is extremely important to be aware of the signs of heat disorders such as heat exhaustion. This is especially true during the summer months when temperatures can skyrocket. According to science writer Dana Desonie, extreme heat kills more people living in the United States than severe weather like tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, and floods combined. Heat exhaustion is a milder condition than heat stroke which can be deadly. The elderly, infants, and athletes are among the most susceptible to developing heat disorders, but anyone can succumb to the damaging effects of extreme heat on the body.
The human body is designed in such a way that heat is released by evaporating on the skin when we sweat. However, if the temperature is too high like in a heat wave or one’s activity level is too intense on a particularly hot and sunny day, the body’s core temperature may rise beyond the point where it is able to cool itself. Heat disorders like heat stroke and heat exhaustion may quickly develop.
Heat stroke occurs when the body’s core temperature reaches 105 degrees F or 40 degrees C. When this happens organ damage and even death becomes a real danger. A person with heat stroke may display strange behavior, hallucinate, and have difficulty breathing. They may slip into a seizure or a coma or even experience a heart attack. Heat stroke should be considered a true emergency and 911 should be called.
Heat exhaustion is not as dangerous, but should be taken seriously nonetheless as it can sometimes precipitate heat stroke. Heat exhaustion can happen to just about anyone under certain conditions. Doing strenuous yard work or gardening on a blistering hot summer afternoon, spending hours in the sun during work or play without hydrating oneself, or dressing too warmly for the season can all contribute to the body becoming highly overheated.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include:
- Dizziness or fainting
- Extreme sweating
Heat exhaustion should be treated immediately. Hydration with cool liquids is essential. Water is an excellent choice, but the body also needs to replace lost minerals and electrolytes. Sports drinks are designed to replenish these nutrients.
A person suffering with heat exhaustion should be moved to a cool place right away. Excess clothing should be removed when possible, retaining only lightweight clothes. Rest is also important. A cool shower or sponge bath can also help to bring the body temperature back into balance.
Author, Desonie, points out that health is impacted the most when nighttime temperatures remain high and heat spells last for days on end combined with high humidity. Heat exhaustion can be prevented by planning ahead for any outdoor activity during extremely hot weather. The National Weather Service has developed a heating index (HI) designed to help people stay informed about the day’s high temperatures coupled with the day’s humidity. Paying attention to the day’s (HI) and taking the necessary precautions can help to prevent any unpleasant bouts with heat exhaustion.
Desonie Ph.D., Dana. (2007). Atmosphere: Air Pollution and Its Effects. New York: Chelsea House.
Mogil, H. Michael. (2007). Extreme Weather. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.