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Summer Series: Treating Heat-Related Illness


Have you ever walked down your driveway on a summer day to get the mail and come back with a wet shirt? I have. To look at some of the people here in 'Hotlanta', you'd think we had a perpetual tropical storm cloud hanging over us. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. The Center for Disease Control (interestingly, located here in town) estimates an average of 700 heat-related deaths each year. The fact that there have been droughts in recent years hasn't helped! What causes these deaths, and how can you protect yourself and your loved ones?

Heat-related deaths are caused by conditions called heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion can easily lead to heat stroke if left untreated, so it's important to recognize the signs.

Heat exhaustion usually occurs when a person spends a lot of time and exerts a lot of energy in hot weather without proper hydration for several days at a time. By 'proper hydration', I mean enough to replace the water and electrolytes you've lost through sweat. I've heard about this happening to high school football players a lot because they practice outside for hours at a time, often wearing heavy equipment. If you consider how many people do manual labor (farmers, construction workers, etc) outside during the summer, you can imagine how this can happen. The signs of heat exhaustion are:
    • Muscle cramps
    • pale, clammy skin
    • heavy sweating
    • nausea/vomiting
    • weakness/fatigue/dizziness
    • fainting
  • weak, rapid pulse and shallow breathing
If you experience any of these symptoms, move into a cooler place and do what you can to cool down-loosen clothing, sit in front of a fan, pat yourself with a cool sponge, etc-and drink plenty of fluids. Sports drinks are particularly good because they help replenish any electrolytes you've lost. Seek medical attention if your symptoms get worse or last longer than an hour, especially if you already have high blood pressure or are on heart medication.

If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon around here for at least one of the aforementioned athletes to die from heat stroke each year. It happens because the body's temperature raises so high so fast (up to 106°F within 10-15 minutes) that the cooling functions fail completely. The signs of heat stroke are:
    • dizziness
    • sweating has stopped
    • confusion/disorientation
    • difficulty breathing
    • throbbing headache
    • rapid heart rate
    • nausea
    • seizure
    • unconsciousness
  • high fever (102°F or above)
If anyone you're with experiences these symptoms, call 911 immediately. In the meantime, get the person to a shady or cooler area. Do anything you can to cool the person down. Removing clothing, ice packs, cool baths, spraying the person with water and fanning them-whatever you can. You want to get the body temperature below 102° Do not, however, try to get them to drink anything if they are not fully conscious. This might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised.
Now that you know how to treat heat-related illnesses, I'm going to tell you how you can prevent them from happening.
(cont'd in next post)

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