M4S 106: How to Prevent Heat Illness
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Knowing how to prevent heat illness can do more than save you in the short term – it can also prevent long-term heat-related issues.
Did you know that nearly 1000 people die each year due to heat-related illnesses? Not to mention, tens of thousands of people who suffer from heat-related injuries sometimes have issues for the rest of their lives. As a paramedic and heat casualty myself, I know first hand the serious and prolonged problems heat illness can cause.
If the summer heat hasn’t hit where you’re at yet, it’s just around the corner, and you should be getting ready for it. One of the best ways to get prepared is by understanding what goes into becoming a heat casualty so that you’re aware of it and know how to prevent heat illness.
Medical problems up to and including death happen when our body’s internal cooling system cannot keep pace with the environment around us and our activity load.
What Is Heat Illness?
A heat injury or heat illness happens when our body’s ability to reduce the amount of heat that it has on it doesn’t keep pace with the amount of heat coming in from the environment around us.
Problems happen when our ability to reduce our bodies’ heat doesn’t keep pace with the amount of heat we are taking in from the environment or creating through activity.
The symptoms of heat cramps are muscle spasms that are usually painful, involuntary, and intermittent. They go away on their own, and they don’t usually last that long. So if you have muscle spasms or are with somebody who’s suffering from muscle spasms, it could be related to the heat. If you believe this issue is that they’ve become overheated, the answer is simple. Administer fluids and electrolyte replacement. Try to help them get cooled off, whether that means going indoors, getting wet, or using a cooling cloth. Catching the issue when you are just at the point of heat cramps is a good way to prevent more serious heat illness.
Heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness that can happen at any time after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures. There are a couple of types of heat exhaustion – salt depletion and water depletion. It is more serious than heat cramps. Treating this the same way as heat cramps but note that it’s a bit more urgent than heat cramps.
Without proper intervention, heat exhaustion can progress and become heat stroke, which could lead to brain damage. As per the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of heatstroke are:
- High body temperature. A core body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher, obtained with a rectal thermometer, is the main sign of heatstroke.
- Altered mental state or behavior. Confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium, seizures and coma can all result from heatstroke.
- Alteration in sweating. In heatstroke brought on by hot weather, your skin will feel hot and dry to the touch. However, in heatstroke brought on by strenuous exercise, your skin may feel dry or slightly moist.
- Nausea and vomiting. You may feel sick to your stomach or vomit.
- Flushed skin. Your skin may turn red as your body temperature increases.
- Rapid breathing. Your breathing may become rapid and shallow.
- Racing heart rate. Your pulse may significantly increase because heat stress places a tremendous burden on your heart to help cool your body.
- Headache. Your head may throb.
It screws with the organs and can cause death, so we want to treat it aggressively. If you believe someone is suffering from heatstroke, it’s time to get them to the doctor ASAP if at all possible.
If professional medical treatment is unavailable, the Mayo Clinic recommends doing everything possible to cool the person down. Get them to a cool place, remove as much clothing as possible, put them in a cool (not cold) bath or shower, or use ice packs or cooling cloths at the back of their neck, armpits, and groin area. You can also wet their hair to help them cool down.
How Our Body Regulates Heat
To prevent heat illness, it’s helpful to understand how our bodies regulate our temperatures. Through the hypothalamus in our brain, our body regulates heat in a variety of ways, which includes convection, conduction, respiration, and evaporation to maintain homeostasis.
- Convection – air movement that displaces the warm air around the body, replacing it with cooler air
- Conduction – heat loss through contact with cooler objects and substances
- Respiration – heat loss from breathing (cool air enters the lungs), which absorbs heat transferred from the body (circulation), cooling us off (Think of a dog panting).
- Evaporation – body heat that is removed due to sweating (spraying water on a sidewalk)
Who is Most Vulnerable to Heat Illness?
There are many factors that show increased chances for someone to suffer from a heat-related injury,
- Age: those over 65 are at the greatest risk
- Gender: Males make up 70% of heat-related deaths
- Increased body weight
- Sudden temperature changes
- High heat index: Annual heat-related illnesses peak in the summer during July and August.
10 Tips to Prevent Heat Illness
- Avoid activity during times of high heat index
- Include regular rest and rehydration breaks
- Cover your sun-facing windows with foil, blackout curtains, blankets, etc.
- Use fans and AC
- Wear loose-fitting clothes
- Avoid sunburn
- Increase your fluid intake (you’re already behind the power curve when you get thirsty)
- Get acclimated
- Electrolyte replacement
- Be smart!
The Bottom Line on How to Prevent Heat Illness
Heat illness can be incredibly serious, and the after-effects can last a lifetime. Your best bet is to learn how to prevent heat illness in the first place.
Stay safe, secure, and prepared,
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