Stay Safe and Healthy When the Heat Is On

Heat waves are an unavoidable fact of life here in sunny Southern California. While many people relish our hot, dry summers, too much heat can lead to illness — and even death.

“The key to staying safe is prevention, awareness of the signs of heat-related illnesses and appropriate response,” said Peter Chau, MD, medical director of the Emergency Department at Simi Valley Hospital. “These conditions often develop rapidly, and symptoms may not disappear quickly, even after treatment begins.”

Heat Cramps: A Treatable Nuisance

Heat cramps are caused by a deficiency of electrolytes (especially sodium) and fluid, leading to pain and cramps in the muscles. These cramps usually occur in people who are sweating profusely and drink only water or fluids without sodium and other electrolytes.

Treat heat cramps by resting in a cool place and drinking water and sports drinks that provide electrolytes. It may also help to gently stretch and massage the affected muscles. More severe cases may require intravenous (IV) replacement of salt and fluid.

Heat Exhaustion: Exercise Caution

Too much evaporation of fluid from the body through heavy sweating can result in heat exhaustion. Symptoms may include sweating; moist, pale and clammy skin; fatigue; headache; dizziness; body aches; fainting; vomiting; and a weak, rapid pulse.

Treat heat exhaustion by moving the victim to a cooler environment, laying him or her down and loosening the victim’s clothing. Give plenty of sports drinks with electrolytes. Fan the victim to further cool him or her. Elderly victims or more severe cases should seek medical attention quickly. IV fluid replacement may be necessary.

“It is very important to recognize and treat heat exhaustion as quickly as possible,” Dr. Chau said. “Otherwise, the condition could lead to heat stroke.”

Heat Stroke: Get Help Fast

While heat cramps and heat exhaustion are distressing, heat stroke can be deadly. Heat stroke is caused by a collapse of the body’s natural heat-regulating system. Typically, a person with heat stroke sweats heavily, then the skin becomes red, hot and dry, with no sweating. In addition, the victim may be confused; develop seizures, shallow breathing and/or a headache; and have a weak, rapid pulse.

“The key to survival for a heat stroke victim is to call 911 or seek other appropriate medical help as quickly as possible,” Dr. Chau said.

He recommended cooling the victim off as rapidly as possible as you await medical assistance. Remove the victim’s clothing, if possible, and keep him or her moist and cool with water spray or sponging. Use a fan to blow air on the person. Do not cover the person with wet sheets, put alcohol on the skin or immerse the person in ice or ice water.

The Elderly and Extreme Heat

Elderly people suffer from heat-related illness at a much higher rate than younger people. Obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn and alcohol use intensify risks for the elderly.

“In addition, antipsychotic medicines, major tranquilizers, medications for Parkinson’s disease, certain cardiac medications [beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers] and over-the-counter sleeping pills may be dangerous for elderly people who are exposed to the hot sun for long periods,” Dr. Chau said. “It is important to talk with your physician about the effect of sun exposure for any medications you or your loved ones use.”

Best Advice: Stay Cool

The best way to treat a heat-related illness is to avoid it altogether. Here are a number of hints to help you beat the heat:

  • NEVER leave a person or a pet in a locked car in the sun.
  • Check local news for the day’s heat index, as well as heat advisories, and adjust your plans accordingly.
  • Drink plenty of water and sports drinks, even if you’re not thirsty. If you are diabetic or a cardiac patient, consult your doctor regarding the type and amount of sports drinks that are safe for you.
  • Avoid alcohol, which can dehydrate your body.
  • If you’re playing a sport or working vigorously, begin drinking extra water a couple hours before you start, as well as during your activity.
  • Wear a single layer of clothing that is lightweight, light-colored (to reflect the sun’s rays), loose fitting and absorbent.
  • Wear sunscreen. The American Cancer Society recommends SPF 15 or higher.
  • Limit activity during the hottest part of the day.
  • If you’re outdoors for a number of hours, find a shady spot to relax occasionally for at least a few minutes.
  • Indoors, use air conditioning, if possible. If you don’t have air conditioning, use a fan to create a breeze. Keep shades drawn and blinds closed.
  • Eat small meals, and eat more often. Avoid high-protein foods, which may increase heat production.
  • DO NOT take salt tablets, unless directed to do so by a physician.
  • If you feel nauseated, dizzy or weak, lie down quickly, which may keep you from fainting. Call for help.
  • Outdoor workers and athletes should pace themselves as their body acclimates to the extreme temperatures.
  • Train coaches, teachers, military personnel and youth group leaders about heat-related illnesses.
  • Don’t forget your pets! Provide shade and plenty of cool water for them.

Note: This is for information purposes only and not intended for use in place of the advice of a physician.