Skip to main content

Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2016 Vol. 63 No. 7

Heat Related Illnesses Can Be Deadly

Hot Town

According to the National Weather Service, approximately 270 people have died in the United States over the last three years due to heat-related illnesses. The majority of those cases involved children and seniors. Heat-related illness, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, can become deadly when unrecognized or improperly managed by individuals, family members and co-workers.

A person's body temperature can rise to dangerous levels outdoors if one does not drink enough water and rest in the shade. The body normally cools itself by sweating. During severe hot weather with high humidity levels, sweating may not be enough to cool the body down. Very high body temperatures can cause damage to the brain or other vital organs, and can cause disability and even death.

Heat exhaustion is a milder type of heat-related illness. It usually develops after being exposed to high temperature weather. Pre-existing dehydration from drinking coffee or alcohol, vomiting or diarrhea, and not drinking enough fluids can make the body vulnerable and more susceptible to heat exhaustion.

Hot Person

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Mild confusion
  • Fast heart rate or breathing
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Extreme thirst
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pale skin
  • Heavy sweating
  • Fainting
  • Warm to touch

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. This occurs when the body's temperature rises quickly, and the body cannot cool down. People will normally experience heat exhaustion first and not recognize or ignore the signs and symptoms, which leads to heat stroke. Heat stroke can cause permanent disability and death.

With heatstroke, all the symptoms of heat exhaustion may be present, plus:

  • Hot to touch (body temperature over 103°F)
  • Irrational behavior or hallucinations
  • Confusion
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Dry skin

Sweating may be present in heat stroke. A person who is experiencing heat stroke might have very dry skin from dehydration.

Treating Heat Related Illness:

  • Call 911 or go to the emergency room if the heat emergency is causing vomiting, seizures or unconsciousness
  • Don't give the person anything to drink if they're vomiting or unconscious
  • Move to a cooler area, out of direct sunlight
  • Slowly drink water or sports drinks every 15 minutes
  • Loosen clothing
  • Apply cool, wet towels to neck, armpits and groin
  • Fan skin, or have someone fan skin if person is unable
  • Never offer a drink containing alcohol or caffeine to someone experiencing a heat emergency
  • DO NOT douse them with ice cold water

Who is at Risk?
The most common at risk population are seniors and children. The senior population are often found in homes with no working air conditioning or may not be able to move around well enough to get to cooler locations. Due to pre-existing medical conditions, they are more susceptible to being overcome by the heat and having multiple medical complications.

Children are sometimes, inadvisably, left inside of turned off vehicles with no air conditioning or ventilation. The internal temperature of a vehicle in the summer can reach over 150 degrees if sitting in direct sunlight. Children also will push themselves when outside playing and do not always stay very well hydrated. Illness can lead to dehydration that can persist even if the child appears to be feeling better. With signs of returning energy, parents may assume they are fine and back to "normal." This creates a false sense of security that that the child is okay to exert high amounts of energy outside, which may not be the case.

Others at risk are people with mental illness and people with chronic diseases. However, even young and healthy individuals can succumb to heat if they participate in demanding physical activities during hot weather. Other conditions that can increase your risk for heat-related illness include obesity, fever, dehydration, poor circulation, sunburn, and prescription drug or alcohol use.

How to Prevent Heat-Related Illness
Here's how you can protect yourself from heat-related illnesses:

  • Drink plenty of liquids like water or electrolyte-enriched liquids, such as Pedialyte, to replace fluids even if you don't feel thirsty
  • Avoid liquids that have alcohol, caffeine or a lot of sugar, because they will speed up fluid loss
  • Go to air-conditioned areas such as malls, libraries, movie theatres and community centers; even a few hours can cool your body's temperature
  • Limit physical activity to morning and evening hours
  • If you feel very hot, cool off by taking a cool bath or shower; just opening a window or using a fan may not prevent heat-related illnesses
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting and moisture-wicking clothing, so sweat can evaporate
  • Wear a wide-brimmed, vented hat or use an umbrella; the head absorbs heat easily
  • Wear sunglasses and apply sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher according to the manufacturer's directions
  • Rest often in shady areas
  • NEVER leave anyone in closed, parked cars during hot weather; infants especially do not tolerate heat well, because their sweat glands are not fully developed.

The most important aspect of dealing with heat-related illness is recognizing the early signs and symptoms. Those symptoms can vary from person to person. When you plan on being out in the heat for prolonged periods of time, you should be prepared to face the elements and be well hydrated. Hydrate today for tomorrow's work is a good reminder when you're preparing to be out in the heat. Also, remember to take time to help seniors and children who can't always protect themselves from the elements and conditions.

Share |