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.

Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke

When you think of summer, images of swimming, camping and barbecues with friends and family probably spring to mind. But while you’re out having fun in the sun, it’s important to remember you need to protect yourself from the heat. This is especially true since the National Weather Service is warning of a record-breaking heat wave that will push heat index temperatures over 100 degrees across the central United States and into the East Coast this weekend.

And the two most common heat-related illnesses to watch out for are heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

heat-exhaustion-vs-heat-strokeWhat’s the Difference Between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?

Though heat exhaustion and heat stroke sound similar and are both caused when your body is unable to keep itself cool, they are very different. So it is imperative that you understand the symptoms of each, as well as how to respond if you or a loved one begins to exhibit signs of either heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Allen Taylor, MD, chief of Cardiology at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute says, "What to watch for is early symptoms like thirst, dizziness, but it can progress. If there’s confusion, nausea, it could indicate more severe heat injury - if it gets worse than that, it can even be fatal."

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms and Treatments

Often caused by exposure to hot weather or participation in physical exercise, those who are suffering from heat exhaustion may experience the following symptoms:

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pale, cool, clammy skin
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Muscle cramping

You will need to move a person suffering from heat exhaustion to somewhere cool, with air conditioning, as quickly as possible. Have them drink water if they are fully conscious, but avoid alcohol or beverages with caffeine. If they are able, have them take a cool shower or use cold compresses to lower their body temperature. Consult a doctor if they do not feel better within 30 minutes, or if they vomit more than once.

Heat Stroke Symptoms and Treatments

While you can often treat someone with heat exhaustion at home, heat stroke is considered a severe medical emergency and is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • No sweating
  • Throbbing headache
  • Red, hot skin
  • Body temperature above 103 degrees
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Loss of consciousness or altered mental state

If you think someone is exhibiting symptoms of a heat stroke, you should call 911 or get them to a hospital immediately, as a failure to do so can be fatal. In the interim - either before help arrives or while you are in transit - move the individual to a cool, air-conditioned environment.

In addition to cold compresses, you can also use a fan - but only if the heat index is below the high 90s. Otherwise, a fan can make someone feel hotter, rather than cooler. Finally, unlike treatment for heat exhaustion, you do not give someone suffering from a heat stroke fluids.

Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke Prevention

When hot weather strikes, you can keep you and your family safe by staying in air-conditioned buildings, but do not rely solely on fans to keep cool. Limit outdoor activity, especially during the midday hours, which are the hottest part of the day. If you do go outside, wear clothing that is loose-fitting, light-colored and lightweight, and take cool showers or baths.

Also, make it a point to check in on at-risk friends and family members - particularly those who are elderly or may need additional assistance.

Have any questions?

We are here to help! If you have any questions about MedStar Washington Hospital Center, call us at 202-877-3627.

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