Editor’s note: B-roll is available for media of Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health corporate health medical director, speaking to this topic. Download here.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are highly preventable with a little precaution and an awareness of the warning signs.
Every summer as the temperature rises, so does the incidence of heat stroke. From 1999 to 2010, an estimated 7,415 Americans died of heat-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There were more than 480 emergency department visits due to heat-related illness during one week in June across North Carolina, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly three-quarters of people stricken by the heat were adult men between the ages of 25 to 64.
“When there’s a rapid weather change and it gets suddenly humid and hot, we see the spectrum of symptoms from dehydration to heat cramps and occasionally heat stroke,” said Dr. David Rentz, an emergency medical specialist at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As the mercury rises, people should take several measures to protect themselves, he said. Rising temperatures can cause high body temperatures, organ and brain damage as people’s bodies struggle to cool themselves. Normally, the body’s natural cooling mechanism, sweat, evaporates off the skin to cool the body, but in extreme heat that evaporation might not be enough to cool you off.
Rentz said an abrupt change in humidity – more than a rise in temperatures – will affect the body’s cooling mechanism.
Some people are more susceptible to extreme heat than others. Those most at risk to heat-related conditions include the elderly, children, poor or homeless people without access to air conditioning, workers or athletes who are outside for long periods of time, and people with chronic medical conditions.
“The elderly are most susceptible to classic heat illnesses or heat exhaustion because they have trouble adjusting to significant changes in temperature,” Rentz said. “People with high blood pressure using medication to manage that condition are also at risk because the drugs affect the fluid levels in the body.”
Exertional heat illness can affect athletes who try to maintain their normal fitness routines but haven’t yet acclimated to a rise in humidity or heat, he added.
What’s the difference between heat stroke and exhaustion?
The difference between these two heat-related conditions is in the symptoms and severity.
According to the CDC, symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Cold, clammy skin
- A pulse that is either too fast or too slow
- Nausea or vomiting
- Heat stroke can manifest in other ways, including:
- A body temperature higher than 103 degrees
- Skin that feels hot, red or moist to the touch
- A quick and strong pulse
“People can appear confused or they may be delirious or suffer hallucinations,” Rentz said.
When symptoms of heat exhaustion are present, experts suggest seeking a cooler location, loosening clothes, lying down and drinking water. Also, applying cool, wet cloths to face and body can help cool you down. If you are vomiting uncontrollably, you should seek medical attention.
With symptoms of heat stroke, the CDC says to call 911 right away. As with heat exhaustion, the person should move to a cooler spot and have cold compresses applied to the body. The agency says not to drink fluids.
Preventing heat-related illness
To stay healthy during a heat wave, the CDC recommends the following preventive measures.
Keep your body cool by staying in an air conditioned environment. If you don’t have access to air conditioning, find a public shelter where you can. Wear lightweight and light-colored clothing. Take cool showers.
Because it’s easy to quickly become dehydrated when it gets really hot, it is important to drink more water than usual and not to wait until you feel thirsty to do so. Avoid dehydrating drinks such as alcohol, caffeine and sugary drinks.
Rentz said replenishing electrolytes is important, too. Sports drinks like Gatorade or an electrolyte-infused water like Smartwater help replenish lost electrolytes.
The doctor said people should make sure their elderly neighbors stay safe and have working air conditioning. “If you’re working outside or exercising, remember to take a break and cool off,” he said.
The CDC also recommends checking in on vulnerable neighbors in the community, never leaving a child or a pet unattended in a car and bringing pets in from outside.