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Understanding Heat Related Illness

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has updated warnings about heat related illness. Hot summers, lack of air conditioning, advanced age, and existing health conditions can lead to fainting, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and cramping from dehydration. Some individuals are at increased risk for heat related illness than are others.

During summer months, hyperthermia can cause serious problems, especially in older adults. Electrolyte imbalances can occur from lack of fluid intake and high temperatures. The result can be confusion, heart rhythm disturbances, and falls from lower blood pressure. Avoiding heat related illness during summer months is especially important for anyone at risk.

Risk factors for heat stroke or other heat related illness include pre-existing conditions, such as fever or viruses. Existing infections can cause generalized weakness, destroying the body’s ability to withstand higher summer temperatures. Obesity and undernourishment can contribute to heat related health problems. Alcohol consumption robs the body of fluids, and can increase risk of heat related illness. Staying well hydrated is imperative to avoid heat stroke, fainting, cramping and heat exhaustion.

You should not avoid taking medications prescribed by your physician. However, some medications can increase the chances of adverse effects from higher summer temperatures. The need to take multiple drugs increases the risk. Fluid and heart pills, anti-anxiety medications, and some blood pressure medications prevent perspiration, increasing susceptibility to heat related problems that could lead to hospitalization. Individuals with heart disease and kidney disease should take extra caution to understand the effects of high summer temperatures outside and in homes that lack air conditioning.

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Older individuals should remain indoors when summer temperatures soar to avoid ill effects related to summer heat. Choose your clothing carefully, to avoid becoming overheated. Consider where you will be spending your time and do not overdress. Pay attention to air pollution alerts, and avoid the outdoors when ozone level warnings are highest.

Know the symptoms of heat stroke and take action to help. Confusion, lack of perspiration, fast heart rate, and combativeness may be heat stroke related symptoms. The person may be unresponsive. The skin may be dry and flushed.

Call for assistance, dialing 911 if you suspect heat stroke. If there has definitely been no chance of trauma from fall or other, move the person to a cooler place. If they can swallow, provide fluids, such as juices and water. Sponging and showering with cool water can bring body temperature lower. Apply cool cloths to the forehead, groin, abdomen, and armpits to help normalize body temperature from heat related illness. If the person complains of dizziness, have them lie down.

Summer is fun, and the outdoors are great, but it is also hot, increasing our risk of heat related complications and illness. Know if you, or those around are suffering from, or at risk for heat related injuries and illness. Stay indoors on hot days, or spend time in a cool mall, library, or government sponsored cooling center to prevent illness from the heat, and serious complications that can occur from heat stroke, exhaustion, and related injuries.

Ref: NIH