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What You Need to Know About Heat-Related Threats

By Martha Michael

Dangers of the Heat

When it’s mid-winter and you’re on the slopes or at home on a snow day, it’s hard to believe the earth will reverse its tilt and temperatures will rise again in half a year. But just as predictable as the numbers on the thermometer, you can count on summer bringing a certain number of heat-related illnesses and deaths.

In statistics reported by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control, extreme heat is the cause of death for more than 600 Americans each year. People of all ages can be affected, though children and senior citizens are at greatest risk for heat-related illnesses. Groups with the highest vulnerability include:

  • Adults over 65 years old
  • Outdoor workers
  • Children
  • Low-income households
  • Athletes
  • People with chronic health conditions

Heat-Related illnesses

There is a spectrum of maladies caused by extreme heat, some of which are life-threatening. Excessive heat is responsible for edema, cramps, syncope, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.

An article in American Family Physician says that both internal and external factors affect the body’s ability to regulate its core temperature, which is what causes these health risks.

Heat cramps - These occur when there’s an imbalance in fluid and electrolyte levels. These painful spasms can be treated through hydration or manual therapies such as chiropractic massage.

Heat exhaustion - This is caused by a depletion of water or sodium. Patients may experience confusion, vomiting, or general malaise. For treatment, take the patient to a cooler environment, hydrate the victim and, in acute cases, supply fluids intravenously.

Heat stroke - This is the diagnosis given when the body’s core temperature exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It can result in intravascular coagulation, cardiac arrhythmias, serum chemistry abnormalities, and the condition may be fatal. The most immediate treatment calls for prompt cooling of the body through such means as ice water immersion. Without proper intervention, a patient may survive but suffer from serious dysfunction of the central nervous system, namely a coma or delirium.

Preventing Heat-Related Illness and Death

Avoiding extremely hot environments and staying hydrated are two major factors in reducing your risk of hyperthermia, which is defined as the elevation of your core body temperature. As temperatures go up, and hydration goes down, it becomes a greater challenge to fend off the possibility of a heat-related illness.

Being better informed is a good way to mitigate accidental hyperthermia.

Hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts sometimes underestimate their ability to function in high temperatures. For instance, most of the approximately 300 search-and-rescue calls per year at the Grand Canyon in Arizona are for heat-related incidents, and many of those individuals are in top physical condition, according to the National Park Service. Some visitors miscalculate the difference in temperature between the rim and the inside of the canyon. A somewhat comfortable high of 95 degrees Fahrenheit at the beginning of the hike is quite a contrast with the temperature in the Grand Canyon’s interior, which can reach 115 degrees on the same day.

When the public understands the challenges of extreme heat for even the healthiest individuals and the need for water intake, summer activities will spark fewer heat-related incidents. And by identifying the most vulnerable groups of society -- and making sure they have adequate information about the danger of extreme weather patterns and the importance of staying indoors -- we can protect them in the same way.

Putting practices in place to promote safe behaviors that prevent injuries from happening is critical. Also, by recognizing the early signs of heat-related illness, loved ones can reach out to health professionals before it’s too late.

Water can be your best friend whether it’s under your skis in winter or summer. And if you think your sports experience causes overheating, consuming water is also your best option for self-care.

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