Tips to stay cool and safe as the heat wave moves through

We’re no strangers to hot summer days in the District of Columbia. But when the thermometer inches toward and above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we could all use a reminder about the dangers of heat illnesses.

Heat can be lethal. We see a few patients in the emergency room every summer who are experiencing the full spectrum of heat illness symptoms. Some just feel muscle cramps or are nauseated while others have may have collapsed while running and are suffering from exertional heat stroke, which can be deadly.

Our bodies cool themselves by sweating. But when the heat and humidity combine to make it feel like 100 degrees or more, sweating may not be enough and our body temperatures can rise to dangerous levels. Our bodies just are not meant to spend long periods of time in extreme heat and humidity, particularly if we are exerting a lot of energy.

While we weather this latest heat wave, let’s talk about symptoms of heat-related illness to watch out for and tips to stay safe when the temperature soars.

Types and symptoms of heat-related illness

There are two main types of heat illness: heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats due to exposure to high temperatures. It can appear suddenly or over time, particularly if you’re engaging in physical activity.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Heavy sweating
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pale or cold skin
  • Weak, rapid pulse

If you experience any of these symptoms, get out of the heat and into a cool place to rest. Drink water and take off any tight or extra clothing. You also can lower your body temperature with an ice pack or cool bath.

If your body doesn’t cool down, heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke, a more dangerous condition.

Heat stroke

Once the body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit and there are signs of neurologic dysfunction such as confusion, agitation ,slurred speech or coma, you’re considered to have heat stroke. This serious condition requires emergency treatment. Left untreated, it can cause shock, organ failure and death.

If you or a loved one have heat stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately. While waiting for emergency personnel, move to a cool location and remove excess clothing. Try to cool off further with a tub of cool water, a fan or ice packs.

While anyone can suffer from a heat-related illness, there are a few factors that can put people at increased risk:

  • Age: The ability to regulate body temperature isn’t fully developed in young children, and the elderly’s may have reduced temperature control because of health conditions or medications.
  • Obesity: Extra weight can cause the body to retain more heat as well as affect the ability to regulate temperature.
  • Health conditions and medications: Some chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disease may increase your risk of heat-related illness. Certain medications also may affect the ability to stay hydrated and regulate body temperature, including some beta blockers, diuretics, antihistamines and antipsychotics.

How to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are preventable. The best ways are to avoid being outside in the heat and avoid overexerting yourself when you are. However, we know this isn’t always possible, so listen to your body. If you’re outside and starting to feel hot or dizzy or you’re experiencing muscle cramps, take a break to go inside and cool off. Avoid going back outside until you’re feeling normal again.

You can seek relief from the heat in public facilities such as recreation centers, public libraries or senior centers. When the temperature or heat index reaches 95 degrees, the District of Columbia also activates cooling centers. Find a cooling center near you.

A few more tips to stay safe in the heat include:

  • Stay hydrated: Drink fluids such as water or low- or no-sugar sports drinks every 15 to 20 minutes, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing: People who live in very hot areas of the Earth wear long, loose-fitting clothing. They know what they’re doing!
  • Take breaks: Try not to push yourself too much with exercise or work too hard. Go inside to cool down as often as possible.
  • Check on your neighbors: We’re all in this together. If you aren’t sure if your neighbors have air conditioning, stop by and see how they’re doing. This is particularly important if they are elderly or live alone.

Finally, heat-related illnesses aren’t the only dangers we face during the hot summer months. We also want to avoid skin cancer from sun exposure. So don’t forget sunscreen and a hat when you’re heading outdoors.

The temperature eventually will drop to a more normal summer range, but until then, stay safe out there.

Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, MedStar Washington Hospital Center

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