Protect yourself from heat illness, heat stroke

Friday, August 7, 2009 — The heat index will soon take up residence in the century zone in North Carolina. It’s important to be able to recognize heat-related illnesses, how to prevent them and what to do if the heat really gets you down.

Don’t be fooled by being young and healthy. Data 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.

Prevent illness

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,” Scholer says. “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.”

Stay hydrated – drink water or other non-alcoholic fluids until you have to urinate.

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

If you can’t escape the heat, rest frequently 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 of heat exhaustion

  • Generalized weakness
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches and muscle aches.

You may also experience increased pulse rate, rapid breathing, excessive sweating, syncope (passing out) or fever.

Symptoms of Heatstroke

Heatstroke is a true medical emergency,” Scholer says.

It is characterized by heat exhaustion, and

  • a body temperature greater than 104 degrees, and
  • altered mental status
  • 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.

  • Move to a shaded or air conditioned environment
  • Drink non-alcoholic fluids
  • Take a bath, shower or sponge bath

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.

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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