Record high temperatures in many parts of the country serve as a good reminder for you to take steps to avoid heat-related illnesses. This is particularly important if you or a family member has a chronic health condition, such as diabetes, hypertension, or a heart condition. Extreme heat has been known to kill hundreds of people and send thousands to emergency rooms each year in the U.S. – more than tornadoes, floods and hurricanes combined! Here’s information that can help prevent heat-related illnesses and keep you healthy this summer.
Heat emergencies include – in order of increasing severity – heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. Of greatest concern is heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat exhaustion can precede heatstroke and can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids.
Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to an excessive loss of the water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. People most prone to heat exhaustion are those that are elderly, have high blood pressure, and those working in a hot environment. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include: heavy sweating; extreme weakness or fatigue; dizziness (also a symptom of low blood glucose-hypoglycemia); confusion; nausea; clammy, moist skin; pale or flushed complexion; muscle cramps; slightly elevated body temperature; fast and shallow breathing.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related disorder. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given. Symptoms of heat stroke include: hot, dry skin or profuse sweating; hallucinations; chills; throbbing headache; high body temperature; confusion/dizziness & slurred speech (also symptoms of low blood sugar–hypoglycemia).
Who is at risk? Most heat-related illnesses happen after being out in the heat too long. Those most vulnerable to extreme heat include the elderly, infants and children, those with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, those who are overweight, those who work or exercise outdoors, and people who are ill or on certain medications.
Certain medications may increase your risk: Certain medications may increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, because they inhibit sweating, reduce blood flow to the skin, or affect fluid balance in the body. The risk for heat-related illness may increase among people using the following drugs: some psychotropics; medications for Parkinson’s disease; certain tranquilizers; and diuretic medications that affect fluid balance in the body. Even over-the-counter decongestants can increase your risk of heat-related illness by reducing the blood flow to the skin. Pharmacists are experts in drug information and can help identify and potentially prevent side effects.
Concerns for people with diabetes: hot weather can make it difficult for people with diabetes to sweat, thereby reducing the body’s capacity to regulate blood-sugar levels. Testing your blood glucose more often, will help rule out symptoms of hypoglycemia. Also, high temperatures affect insulin and other supplies, causing them to lose potency. Keep medication and supplies as cool as possible, and away from direct sunlight. The Product Inserts for your testing supplies and various insulins will provide specific information regarding desired storage temperature ranges.
How can I prevent heat-related illness? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following tips for staying safe in extremely hot weather:
Keep cool: air conditioning is the best way to protect against heat illness and injury. If your home isn’t air-conditioned, go to air-conditioned public facilities such as libraries and shopping malls.
Stay hydrated: drink cool, non-alcoholic beverages and increase your fluid intake regardless of your activity level; caffeine and alcohol can cause dehydration. Drink more water than normal, regardless of your activity level, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty. If you have a medical condition that requires fluids restriction, you should check with your doctor about how much fluid to consume.
Think safety: never leave infants, children or pets in parked cars. Check on overweight people, who are more prone to heat illness because they tend to retain more body heat. Others at increased risk include people with chronic health conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure, and those who take certain types of medications. Know the symptoms of heat illnesses and sun overexposure.
Don’t overdo it when exercising or playing sports. During heavy exercise in a hot environment, drink two to four glasses (16-32 ounces) of cool fluids each hour; wear light colored, loose-fitting clothing.
Stay informed. Check local news sources for extreme heat warnings or safety tips, or sign up for free weather alerts to your phone or e-mail.
To stay safe and healthy in extreme heat conditions, get more tips from the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov.
Written by: Nancy Trebilcock, BSN, RN, CDE