The Importance Of Staying Cool – Understanding Heat Stroke

Did you know that heat stroke is the number one weather-related cause of death in the U.S.? As the weather warms and we bring out our hiking shoes, bikes and gardening trowels, knowing the symptoms, causes and prevention of heat stroke is of vital importance.

Heat-related illnesses occur when our bodies are unable to sufficiently cool off, which normally occurs through sweating. When the weather is hot and humidity is high, sweat doesn’t evaporate quickly, often preventing the release of heat. This causes a rise in body temperature, sometimes rapidly, as the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis fails. Infants, young children and the elderly are the most susceptible – as are pets. Physiological factors like heart disease, poor circulation, obesity, fever, prescription drugs, alcohol and caffeine can also contribute to the body’s inability to cool down.

Signs of Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is an extreme medical emergency requiring aggressive cooling measures and support. Heat Stroke can occur within 10-15 minutes of its first symptoms, whether symptoms occur rapidly through exertion or gradually through heat/sun exposure. The resulting uncontrolled fever and circulatory collapse can cause damage to the brain, liver, kidneys and heart. Symptoms include disorientation, lightheadedness, headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, paleness, body cramping, rapid and shallow breathing, and a fast pulse. Body temperature climbs to over 104° F (40° C) and can be observed even without a thermometer; skin will feel hot and dry, or moist if brought on through physical exertion.

What to Do

Help the person (or pet) cool by maximizing skin exposure and spraying or sponging water on the skin, then evaporating it by fanning air over the body. Immersion in water can initiate cooling, as can applying cold packs to the neck, groin, armpits and back, and massaging the skin with ice. Encourage rehydration if the person is able to drink fluids. Unless the recovery is rapid, the person should be taken to a hospital or emergency care clinic.

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Preventing Heat Stroke

Dehydration is the most important factor, as temperature and heart rate increase in direct proportion to the level of dehydration. Skin helps regulate temperature – it’s where sweating and heat exchange take place. The cardiovascular system increases blood flow to move heat from the body’s core to the surface, especially important when physically active.

Replace fluids and electrolytes. Don’t rely on thirst to indicate a need for fluids in a warm environment. Drink water to prevent dehydration. Sweat contains sodium and chloride; sweating can reach a rate of 1–2 L/hr, which is a significant fluid and sodium loss. When exercising intensely or working consistently in heat, electrolyte drinks or salty snacks (trail mix, pretzels, crackers) can be an efficient way to replace salt losses that occur through sweating. (Check with your physician if you are on a low-sodium diet.)

Wear appropriate clothing. The best is lightweight, loose and light-colored to allow maximum air circulation for evaporation and to give protection from the sun. A wide-brimmed hat reduces radiant heat exposure.

Physical conditioning and heat acclimatization. Adapting to a hot environment is important both at the onset of increased local temperatures and when planning to travel to a hotter region. Being physically fit helps with the ability to function in heat, and the process of acclimating to heat is key. Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest part of the day.

Keep to a cool environment. Seek shade, and seek relief in an air-conditioned building, even if for just a few hours a day. Install an air-conditioning unit in your home or work environment. If you don’t have air-conditioning at home, visit air-conditioned environments like malls, theaters and libraries.[/sws_green_box]

Lisa Shara
About Lisa Shara

Writer Lisa Shara lives in upper Northern California where she is involved in a variety of community projects.

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