Don’t Let the Summer Heat Knock You Off Your Feet
Understanding heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them
Writer / Dr. Karen Crevier, emergency medicine physician at IU Health West Hospital
Between high temperatures and the midwest humidity, July tends to be one of the hottest months of the year. It’s important to be aware of heat-related illnesses and how you can prevent them, while still enjoying the summer sun.
There are four main heat-related illnesses: heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rash. Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to control its temperature due to excessive heat and humidity. It’s difficult for your body to cool down during a heat stroke because your sweat isn’t evaporating as quickly as usual. Symptoms of heat stroke include nausea, headache, rapid pulse, decreased level of consciousness and even hallucinations. Patients with heat stroke can present with either sweaty or dry skin.
Heat exhaustion is a result of your body losing salt and water through excessive sweating. Symptoms include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, headache, nausea, pale skin, quick and shallow breathing and dizziness. Heat stroke and exhaustion are the most serious types of heat-related illness.
When we sweat, our muscles also lose salt and water, which can cause heat cramps or muscle pain. Heavy sweating can also irritate the skin, causing a heat rash or small red bumps or blisters on the skin. Heat rash often develops on the chest and neck.
If you or someone you know is experiencing heat stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately. The best way to treat heat stroke is an ice bath to cool down the body. Though this is the most efficient method of cooling, this can be a difficult task to accomplish in the moment. To help the body cool down, spray the body with water and then use fans to help with evaporation. During a heat stroke, individuals are at risk for seizures. Make sure they are lying down and in a safe position.
For heat exhaustion and cramps, find a cool spot indoors or shady spot outside to sit, rest and drink water. Cooling down your skin will also help clear a heat rash. If symptoms continue to worsen despite cooling down, contact your primary care physician for an appointment.
One of the best ways to prevent heat-related illnesses is to stay hydrated. Set an alarm every 15 minutes as a reminder to drink water when outside in extreme heat and humidity. Along with staying hydrated, it’s important to take breaks in a shaded, cool area and be mindful of your clothing. Choose loose, breathable clothing that won’t stick to your skin.