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Heat illness prevention tips

Thursday, July 17, 2008

As the sun shines and temperatures rise, it is increasingly important to know how to beat the heat.

According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat-related illnesses occurs when the body cannot continue to cool itself. The body naturally cools itself by emitting sweat but in some cases sweat just isn't enough and causes the body temperature to rise rapidly in some cases. Extremely high body temperatures can cause brain damage or damage to other vital organs.

Those most at risk for heat illness include adults age 65 and older, infants and children up to four years of age and the obese. There are more contributing factors including fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, the use of prescription drugs and alcohol use.

According to Ed Barham, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas averages 9.3 death per year to extreme heat. In 2007 there were 10 deaths attributed to the heat in Arkansas. In 2006 that number was seven. In 2005 there were 11 deaths. There have been no heat-related deaths in the state so far this year, Barham said; however, a 48-year-old Memphis woman died May 30 due to the heat. The woman suffered from high blood pressure and was obese as well, according to reports.

"It actually seems more dangerous in the first part of the season before people have a real chance to become acclimated to the heat," Barham said. "It's important to go into the heat season with a little bit of knowledge."

Terry Burns, MD with White River Medical Center North Complex, said in Arkansas health care providers begin seeing heat-related illnesses in patients when outside temperatures are in the 90s. He said the high humidity level contributes to the problem. When the humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate quickly which prevents the body from releasing heat as quickly as normal often resulting in illness.

Burns said the key to health in hot temperatures is prevention: stay well hydrated and if you start to feel hot -- stop, rest and cool off.

There are several heat-related illnesses; however, heat stroke is the most serious.

Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. The body temperature rises quickly but the body is unable to sweat in order to cool down. In such cases body temperature may rise to 106 degrees or higher in just minutes. Without emergency treatment heat stroke may cause death or permanent disability.

Symptoms of heat stroke may include: an extremely high body temperature; red, hot and dry skin; rapid, strong pulse; throbbing headache; dizziness; nausea; confusion; and/or unconsciousness.

If someone is suffering from these symptoms call for emergency help and cool the body immediately.

Heat exhaustion is another heat-related illness but is much milder than heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion may occur after being exposed to high temperatures for several days with an inadequate replacement of fluids. This occurs most often in the elderly, those who work or exercise in a hot environment or those with high blood pressure.

Symptoms include: heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting and/or fainting. In addition, the skin may be cool and moist. The pulse may be fast and weak. Breathing may be fast and shallow.

If someone suffers from heat exhaustion they should drink cool beverages, rest, take a cool shower or bath, get out of the heat and wear lightweight clothing.

If untreated heat exhaustion may lead to heat stroke. Medical attention is needed if symptoms worsen or last longer than an hour.

Burns said heat exhaustion is the most common heat-related illness he treats. While some people know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion there is often something they do not know -- they will remain heat sensitive for two to three months while the body recuperates.

"They get overheated and then the rest of the summer they just have to take it easy," he said.

Heat cramps can also occur after prolonged exposure to hot environments. Heat cramps are muscle pains, typically in the stomach, arms or legs, that occur after strenuous activity where a great deal of sweat is excreted.

Sweating depletes the body of salt and moisture. The low salt level causes the cramps to occur.

Medical attention is needed if the victim suffers from heart problems, is on a low-sodium diet or if symptoms do not subside after an hour. If medical attention is not needed, the victim should stop all activity and sit in a cool place. They should also drink clear juice or a sports drink.

Heat rash is another problem that can occur with prolonged exposure to the heat. It is a skin irritation caused by intense sweating in hot, humid weather. It is characterized by clusters of what appear to be red pimples or small blisters on the skin. It is most common in young children but can occur on anyone.

Treatment includes getting into a cooler environment with less humidity. Victims are also encouraged to keep the area dry.

In order to protect yourself from heat-related illness, people are to remember to drink plenty of fluids; replace salts and minerals; wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing and sunscreen; stay indoors when possible; and use a buddy system. In addition, limit sun exposure during mid-day hours when possible; do not leave infants, children or pets in parked vehicles; and provide plenty of fresh water in a shady spot for your pets. If someone does not have air conditioning they should go to a public place with air each day. The CDC said even a few hours spent away from the heat can help a body stay cooler when it returns back into the heat.

From 1979-2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. During this period, more people died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined.

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