Protecting Yourself from Heat Stroke and Heat-Related Illness

Golden Triangle Emergency Centers is dedicated to preserving the health and well-being of those in our community. For the residents of Southeast Texas, an important aspect of staying safe and healthy is beating the region’s notorious summer heat. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that between 1999 and 2010 about 7,415 Americans died due to heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Meanwhile thousands more were hospitalized or sickened by the heat but thankfully recovered. This quick guide to protecting yourself from heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses will explain the warning signs, highlight some types of at-risk people who need to be particularly careful, and provide crucial tips for staying safe.

Understanding Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

Both heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur when the body’s temperature rises too high and it is unable to effectively cool itself down. Heat exhaustion is a much less severe condition than heat stroke and occurs with only slightly elevated body temperatures. Meanwhile heat stroke occurs with severely elevated body temperatures that occur over 103°F and which can easily lead to death if not treated promptly. Heat exhaustion may be treated by moving to a cooler area, removing warm or tight clothes, lying down, applying cool, wet cloths to the head and face, and rehydrating the body with water. By contrast heat stroke warrants immediate medical attention and by this point it may exacerbate the problem if the victim tries to drink fluids. Never delay seeking emergency medical services if you believe you or someone around you is suffering from heat stroke.

Warning Signs of Heat Exhaustion

Some of the most common warning signs of heat exhaustion include the following:

  • Intense sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fainting
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Elevated or slowed pulse
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Confusion

Warning Signs of Heat Stroke

The warning signs of heat stroke are similar to those of heat exhaustion as discussed above, however may be more extreme and include:

  • No sweating (in contrast to heat exhaustion)
  • Dry, red, hot skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Very elevated pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Delirium, confusion, or hallucinations
  • A body temperature over 103°F

Humidity Is the Enemy

Normally the body cools itself via sweating and the subsequent evaporation of perspiration However, when humidity levels in the air are too high this can hinder the evaporation of perspiration and thus decrease the efficacy of the body’s natural cooling system, increasing the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Since Southeast Texas is notoriously humid that means that our residents are at an increased risk of heat-related illness compared to residents of regions with similar temperatures but lower humidity levels.

At Risk Individuals

Even within the same geographic area some people are at significantly more risk of developing heat-related illness than others. Generally people who are outdoors, in direct unshaded sunlight, and with limited or no access to water or air conditioning are most at risk. Some particularly vulnerable groups of people include:

The Elderly – As the body ages it begins to have more difficulty adjusting to rapid temperature changes. Likewise some elderly people are at an increased risk of living alone or in isolation and thus have symptoms that go unnoticed. Some elderly people are also living in poverty or on a fixed budget and thus not be able to afford, or try to avoid using, air conditioning. Elderly people with senility, Alzheimer’s, and other age-related cognitive impairments may also fail to realize that they are in danger or lack the ability to respond properly.

Young Children – Babies and young children are often physically less able to cope with extreme or sudden temperature variations. Likewise, as with the elderly they often lack the ability to recognize that they are in danger or be unable to respond in an effective way.

Athletes – Athletes are often at an elevated risk of developing heat-related illness because they are often training outdoors and are physically exerting themselves, naturally raising their body temperatures and sweating. They may be in particular danger if they continue their same physical fitness routine without adjusting to the higher temperatures. Dehydration is a common and serious risk factor for athletes; however, over-hydration, and electrolyte imbalances can also be deadly problems.

The Homeless – The homeless are at increased risk of heat-related illness because they may not have anywhere to go to escape the heat or find air conditioning and fluids. Homeless people should seek out, or be directed to, shelters and other services.

People with other Medical Conditions – People with other chronic or acute medical conditions are also at an increased risk of developing heat-related illness. In particular those with high blood pressure must be careful to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Pets and Livestock – While obviously not people it is important to realize that pets, livestock, and other animals are also vulnerable to heat-related illness. Never leave your animal in a hot car, trapped in direct sunlight or other heat-elevated environments, or without access to water.

Tips for Beating the Heat

Here some important tips for beating the heat and avoiding heat-related illness:

Fluids – Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and avoiding beverages the cause dehydration such as caffeine-rich coffee and energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and highly sugary drinks. Drinks that help balance electrolytes such as sports drinks and electrolyte-infused water are also beneficial.

Clothing – Try to avoid dark-colored clothes which absorb heat and instead opt for light-colored clothes that reflect it. Avoid tight clothes or clothes that trap heat or reduce circulation. Opt for lightweight materials.

Environment – If possible stay in air conditioned or climate-controlled environments. When outdoors avoid staying in direct sunlight and instead try to find shade and areas with good air circulation.

Showers, bathes and Wet Cloths – Taking a cool shower or bath is a great way to stay cool and help lower body temperatures. If you feel overheated applying a cool, damp cloth or rag to your forehead or neck can help lower your temperature.

Activity – If possible perform outdoor activities like gardening, exercising, etc. in the early morning or late evening when it is cooler. Plan ahead, wear appropriate clothes, keep water handy, and stay out of direct sun.

Look Out for Your Community

Remember that everyone in the area is going through the same high temperatures that you are. Consider checking in on elderly or sick family members, friends, and neighbors. Alert authorities immediately if you see a baby, child, or pet unattended in a locked car. Above all else seek immediate medical services such as those provided by Golden Triangle Emergency Center and others if you believe your or someone around you is suffering from heat stroke or other severe heat-related illness.