Heat-related illnesses are serious business. When left untreated, the symptoms of heat exhaustion can turn into heatstroke, which is life-threatening. During the prime summer months, this can be a big problem and one that can creep up on you, since the signs and symptoms of heatstroke can often look like something else. With normal summer temperatures slowly increasing around the globe, it's even more important to understand how heatstroke occurs and how you can prevent it.
Understanding Heat-Related Illnesses:
Essentially, heatstroke happens when your body dangerously overheats, outpacing its ability to cool itself down by sweating. Extreme temperatures are of course a risk factor, but you can also get heat-related illnesses if you're exercising in regular summertime hot weather (especially when you're not used to it) or a very humid climate. Wearing heavy or restrictive clothing, drinking alcohol, or otherwise being dehydrated can also make heat stroke more likely.
Risk Factors for Heatstroke:
The CDC cautions that people ages 65 and older, infants and young children, and those with obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses are at greater risk of getting heat-related illnesses. Taking certain medications can also make it more likely you might experience heat stroke.
Heatstroke vs. Heat Exhaustion:
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are on a continuum, with heatstroke at the more serious end of the spectrum. Essentially, heat exhaustion begins when you start experiencing symptoms related to your body overheating; a heat stroke happens when your core body temperature reaches 103 degrees. Heatstroke can cause vital organs like your brain and kidneys to swell, resulting in irreversible damage or death. Both are extremely serious conditions, so if you notice any signs of heat exhaustion, get help immediately.
Signs & Symptoms:
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke can happen faster than you might expect. Symptoms and warning signs include:
- Sunburn or heat rash
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle fatigue or cramps
- Confusion or agitation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat
- Skin that is cool to the touch
- Chills or shivering
- Loss of consciousness
Check the heat index: Different from temperature, the heat index is calculated by combining the humidity level with the temperature for a more accurate picture of how the day's heat will feel to a human body. If the heat index is above 90 degrees, use extreme caution when spending time or being active outdoors.
Stay in the shade: Try to stay out of the direct sun for prolonged periods of time. Bring an umbrella and be sure to take plenty of breaks in the shade.
Hydrate: Drinking enough water is hugely important if you're spending time outdoors in hot temperatures. Avoiding alcohol, which causes dehydration, is also a really good idea.
Dress appropriately: Wear light, breathable fabrics, and don't forget a hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes and skin.
What to do if you Suspect Heatstroke:
If you think you or someone else has heat stroke, get out of the sun, hydrate slowly, and rest. Use cool water, not ice water, on your skin or to drink (ice water can actually make your condition worse). If you suspect heatstroke, or if heat exhaustion symptoms do not start to resolve right away, call 911 or get to the emergency room immediately. Wait until your symptoms are completely gone before resuming any physical activity.
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