Media Contact: Keith.O’Connor@baystatehealth.org, 413-794-7656
SPRINGFIELD – We wait all winter for it to return. And, when it finally does, it isn’t long before we start complaining about it.
It’s the warmth of the sun. But, when the heat becomes excessive, it’s the top weather-related killer in the United States.
“As with many illnesses, the best defense is prevention,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, Emergency Department, Baystate Medical Center.
“Those at greatest risk for developing a heat-related illness are children under five years of age and people 65 years of age and older, who have the least ability to regulate their body temperatures,” he added.
People who are overweight and others with chronic illnesses such as heart disease or high blood pressure, as well as those who are on certain medications, are also at high risk.
Dr. Schmidt suggests the following important hot weather tips to keep you safe and healthy this summer:
- Stay out of the heat – Avoid direct sunlight and strenuous activity outdoors. If possible, remain indoors, preferably in an air-conditioned room. If you do not have air conditioning, consider visiting with a friend or relative who does, spending part of the day shopping at the mall, or visiting your local library or other locations with air conditioning such as a movie theater. Also, during extreme heat waves, many facilities open their doors to those looking to escape to a cool place. Check with your local public health department for the location of heat-relief shelters in your town.
- Dress for the weather – Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and a broad-brimmed hat when outdoors. Stay away from polyester in favor of cotton and linens which are better at repelling the sun’s heat. Also, consider sunglasses and putting on a sunscreen of at least SPF 15.
- Drink plenty of liquids – Don’t wait until you are thirsty, begin drinking before you go outside and, if exercising, drink one quart of liquid an hour to replace lost fluid. But, be sure to avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol which can contribute to the loss of more body fluid. Also, if you are taking water pills or on a fluid restrictive diet, consult with your physician before increasing your liquid intake.
- Take it slow and easy – Postpone athletic activity during periods of high heat and humidity, and limit outdoor activities to the morning and evening hours. Drinking sports beverages can replace lost salt and minerals when you sweat. However, those on a low-salt diet should check with their physician before drinking any sports beverages. If you work outdoors for a living, in addition to drinking plenty of liquids and dressing appropriately, pace yourself and take frequent short breaks in the cool shade.
- Eat smaller meals – Instead of the usual rule of eating three square meals a day, eat smaller meals more frequently on days when the sun turns up the heat. When you eat a large meal, your metabolism works harder during digestion creating more metabolic heat. Also, avoid high-protein foods which can increase metabolic heat.
Extreme heat affects the body’s ability to safely regulate its temperature, often resulting in heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or heat cramps. Sweating is the body’s natural defense to cooling itself. However, when humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly and resulting in a rapid rise of body temperature.
Dr. Schmidt said the warning signs of an oncoming heat-related illness could include excessive sweating, leg cramps, flushed skin, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headache and rapid pulse. If these symptoms occur, he suggests getting out of the heat and drinking liquids. If you don’t feel better soon, call your doctor or visit your local emergency department, noted Dr. Schmidt.
“Heat stroke, which can cause death or permanent disability, is the most serious heat-related illness and requires immediate emergency medical treatment,” said Dr. Schmidt about the serious condition which can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs.
Warning signs of heat stroke can vary, but may include the following: body temperature of 103º F or higher; a rapid, strong pulse; dizziness; throbbing headache; nausea; confusion; and in extremely critical cases, unconsciousness.
Less serious are heat rashes which are caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. While more common in young children, heat rashes can affect anyone. The rash, which appears like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters, is most often found on the neck, upper chest, in the groin area, under the breasts, and in elbow creases. Treatment involves providing a cooler, less humid environment, keeping the skin dry, as well as the use of powder to increase comfort.
“In addition to taking care of yourself from the ill-effects of the heat, don’t forget to check on elderly relatives and neighbors several times a day to make sure they are safe and free from any signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” said Dr. Schmidt, who is also an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine for Tufts University School of Medicine. Baystate Medical Center, as the Western Campus of Tufts University School of Medicine, offers a residency in Emergency Medicine.
Dr. Schmidt also reminds parents and caregivers that hot weather and vehicles can be a deadly combination for kids, resulting in a record number of deaths in 2010.
“Children are at serious risk for heat stroke when left alone even for a few minutes in a closed vehicle or even in one with the window left slightly open,” he said.
For more information on Baystate Medical Center, visit baystatehealth.org/bmc.