The Sizzle on Heat Illness

Summertime…and the living’s easy. Well, not exactly easy, especially if you live in Phoenix, Ariz., like I do and spend time outdoors. It’s about 110 degrees in the shade, of which there is precious little.

It might be a good time to talk about heat illness.

Heat illness comes in two flavors – heat exhaustion and heat stroke. 

The milder illness is heat exhaustion. That means that the heat is getting the best of you, but all body systems are still working.

Think of the last time you did heavy work outside in the summer and overdid it. You probably felt a little sick, nauseated, had a headache, were drenched with sweat and felt weak, maybe experienced some muscle cramps. This was the beginnings of heat exhaustion.

You may not have known what to call it, but you knew if you didn’t cool down, you could get a lot worse. You go inside and drink some fluids, throw some cold water on yourself and rest. As long as relief from the heat is close by, you recover in a couple of hours. 

Heat stroke is the more serious heat illness. This is a true medical emergency and requires immediate action and a 911 call. 

In heat stroke, your body has been overwhelmed by the heat, and your heat controlling systems break down. Body temperature can climb above 105 degrees. Much above that and real damage is done, up to and including death.

In heat stroke, you stop sweating. Sweating is your body’s evaporative cooler. When this stops working, your temperature goes up in a hurry. People with heat stroke have hot, dry, red skin. They commonly feel sick, have a headache, experience nausea and may be confused because high body temperature affects brain function. As the body temperature climbs more, victims may suffer a seizure.

Two things must be immediately done: get the victim out of the heat and call 911. While you are waiting for the paramedics, here is what you should do to help the victim:

  • Lay the person down
  • Dampen his/her clothes and put the victim near a fan (that’s artificial sweating)
  • Put the person in lukewarm water (85 degrees, not 60) if you can
  • Put ice packs around the groin area and trunk    

How do you avoid heat-related illness? Most of this is common sense, at least in the desert:

  • Try to avoid the heat
  • Stay indoors during the hottest part of the day (noon to 4 p.m.)
  • Take regular breaks from the heat; find a cool spot to rest
  • Stay well hydrated
  • Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing, which acts alike a radiator when it gets damp
  • Hydrate often (yes, I said that twice). If you’re not urinating, you’re not drinking enough water. 

Heat illness is very preventable. Time your activity during the summer months, drink a lot of non-alcoholic fluids and keep an eye on each other.    

– Dr. Don Bucklin, National MRO – a.k.a. “Dr. B”


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