Hot Topic: Who suffers the most in summer heat?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 — With higher temperatures comes higher risk of heat-related conditions like sunburn, cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Written by Margot Carmichael Lester for UNC Health Care

And while it’s commonplace to hear reminders to monitor infants and the elderly during heat waves, data from NC DETECT (the North Carolina Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool) show that 25-44 year olds visit the emergency department more often with heat-related complaints than any other age group. Only 45-64 year olds visit nearly as much.

“Active adults -- including physical laborers and those who exercise for fitness or participate in sports -- may not realize they are at risk for these conditions and can overdo it outside on hot days,” says Matt Scholer, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the UNC Department of Emergency Medicine.

The best way to avoid problems is to stay cool.

“Stay indoors during the hottest part of the day – in the air-conditioning if possible,” he continues. “If no air conditioning is available at home, other possibilities are a friend's house or a public place such as a mall or library. Taking a shower or bath is also a good way to cool off.”

And keep an eye on infants, active kids and the elderly to make sure they’re staying cool and hydrated, too.

And if you can’t escape the heat, rest frequently, drink plenty of fluids and wear light-weight and light-colored clothing. It’s also important to avoid alcohol and strenuous activity. If you must work outside, go at a slower pace and work before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., taking frequent hydration breaks.

Symptoms and Treatments

If, despite your best intentions, you spend too much time in the sun and heat, here are symptoms and suggested action for heat exhaustion and heatstroke:

Symptoms: Generalized weakness, lightheadedness, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, headaches and muscle aches. You may also experience increased pulse rate, rapid breathing, excessive sweating, syncope (passing out) or fever. “These signs are indicative of heat exhaustion and should prompt urgent medical attention,” Scholer counsels. “Heatstroke is characterized by heat exhaustion with a body temperature greater than 104 degrees, altered mental status or the loss of the ability to sweat and is a true medical emergency.”

Actions: If you notice that you are developing any of these symptoms, stop whatever you’re doing and take steps to cool down. “These may include moving to a shaded or air conditioned environment, drinking non-alcoholic fluids and/or taking a bath, shower or sponge bath,” Scholer suggests. Sitting by a fan can also help.

If these symptoms don’t improve or become worse, seek medical attention. When dealing with kids under 4 or adults over 75, or if you’re unsure how sick you may be, err on the side of caution and go to the doctor.

You can prevent discomfort or a trip to the ER this summer with a little planning and common sense. “Awareness and behavioral modifications are the primary means by which heat-related illness can be avoided,” Scholer notes.

NC DETECT Web site: http://www.ncdetect.org/index.html

Media contacts: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu or Clinton Colmenares, (919) 966-8757, ccolmena@unch.unc.edu

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