Summer Heat Health Issues and Tips to Stay Cool
by Lisa DiFalco
Depending on where you live, you may already be experiencing unusually warm temperatures. While many people enjoy the change, some are sensitive to heat-related health complications or may overheat if not careful. A heat-related illness or death can be prevented. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “many people succumb to extreme heat” every year.
Caregivers, parents, coaches, healthcare professionals, nurses and educators can help prevent a heat-related illness in those under their care. Understand more about summer heat health issues and how to address symptoms quickly.
What Are Some Heat-Related Complications?
Excessive heat can play a role in the development or exacerbation of heat-related health conditions. The body has a more difficult time maintaining blood pressure levels when a person is in a hot environment. When blood pressure levels are regulated, oxygen continues to be delivered in healthy amounts to the brain, along with necessary hormones and needed nutrients. When blood flow is not maintained, the flow of blood to the brain can decline. Sweating, paleness, nausea and abdominal pain may occur before a person faints or syncope occurs. Common triggers that may induce syncope, or fainting, include experiencing pain, seeing blood, or a depletion of body fluids. It is important to be aware of the impact water pills or diuretics may have on the body. Dehydration or a bout of diarrhea can also make a person more prone to a change in blood pressure levels and possibly make a person more likely to faint. As temperatures rise, it becomes more important to hydrate regularly and reduce activity if feeling discomfort. Be mindful that fainting can be a result of various factors. Certain health conditions may predispose one to fainting. Fainting may also be a result of:
- Abnormal heart rhythms; and
- Structural heart problems.
The elderly appear to be susceptible to syncope, and women faint more often than men. But fainting is not the only condition that may be triggered by warmer-than-normal temperatures.
Heat exhaustion is another condition that can result in heatstroke, a potentially life-threatening condition requiring immediate medical attention. Heatstroke occurs when the internal body temperature reaches a minimum of 104 F, or 40 C. Heatstroke can result in permanent brain damage and negatively impact other vital organs. A normal core temperature is approximately 98.6 F or 37 C.
Sweating is one way the body uses to cools itself down. Overexertion or exercising strenuously during hot and humid weather can make it difficult for the body to cool itself off sufficiently. Early signs of a heat-related illness include:
- Heat cramps;
- Heavy sweating;
- Muscle cramps; and
Mild signs of heat exhaustion can be addressed with drinking fluids and stopping any activity that may have resulted in excessive sweating and cramps. Certain risk factors can increase a person’s sensitivity to heat. Factors include:
- A heat index of 91 F, or 33 C, or higher;
- A sudden temperature change, such as when traveling to warmer climate but residing in a cooler one;
- Obesity and excessive weight;
- Certain prescription drugs such as beta blockers, diuretics, antihistamines, tranquilizers and antipsychotics; and
- Being an adult older than 65 or a child of three years of age or younger.
Individuals with these risk factors or experiencing high heat indexes are more likely than others to have difficulty responding as necessary to high temperatures. Caretakers and family members of the elderly, very young or those taking numerous medications need to stay observant of any signs of dehydration, dizziness or discomfort and attend to such symptoms. In addition, other populations such as those with chronic medical conditions, outdoor workers and athletes may be at higher risk of a heat-related illness or death.
How to Prevent Fainting and Heat Cramps
People can avoid syncope by avoiding extreme temperatures and staying hydrated. Long, hot showers may also trigger the condition. Individuals considering a fast may need to shorten the duration of a fast during warmer months. Those that stand often should shift weight from one leg to the other regularly to reduce the likelihood of syncope.
As for heat cramps and early signs of heat exhaustion, consumption of water and drinks containing electrolytes can help. Moving to a cooler area and resting may be used to address mild symptoms. Signs of heatstroke require medical intervention.
Spring and summer months are also a time of parties, grill outs and celebrations. Limit alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of dehydration. Quick postural changes and hyperventilation can also induce syncope. Drink water regularly and consume an electrolyte-based beverage when engaged in sports or strenuous activity. Protect the skin but avoid overdressing. Choose clothing made from cotton or moisture-wicking fabrics to allow sweat to easily evaporate and cool the body.
Those that experience heat-related fainting symptoms often should speak with their healthcare provider. Changes to salt and water intake and prescription medications may help. A doctor’s visit can help in determining the cause of syncope or heat exhaustion and appropriate treatment options. Immediate care is needed for signs of heat stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make a number of suggestions for vulnerable populations including:
- Avoiding direct sunlight;
- Staying in an air-conditioned shelter during periods of high heat;
- Drinking more water and drinking it before feeling thirsty; and
- Listening to local news to know about any extreme heat alerts.
As temperatures warm up, it does not mean that people need to stay inside. The majority of people can enjoy an outing, barbecue or play outdoors when they know how to take care of themselves and prevent a heat-related illness, such as fainting, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Simple steps can allow the body to effectively respond to changing temperatures. However, those on certain medications, with a chronic health condition or working outdoors may need to take additional measures to ensure that they stay hydrated and cool down as needed.