Heat-realted illnesses rise with the temperature

Published 11:28 am Saturday, June 27, 2009

As the temperature outdoors rises, so does the number of people suffering from heat-related illnesses. With the temps rising into triple-digit figures, staying cool may be almost impossible, but it is crucial to preventing illness.

Dr. Alex Curtis, a physician at Fitz-Gerald Clinic in Demopolis, reports that children, the elderly and those on diuretic medications such as blood pressure medicines are most susceptible to heat-related illness.

“During the high heat extremes, people are not adjusted to it,” said Dr. Mark Hayden, a physician at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital’s emergency room. “The biggest thing that you want to look for is people who are getting hot and they are no longer sweating. The sweat has water in it, and water is the best thing for cooling things down.”

Dehydration and sunburn are the two most common heat-related illnesses. Curtis reports said he sees 15 to 20 severe dehydration cases each summer.

Dehydration can be prevented by drinking plenty of water and sports drinks and by avoiding high-sugar drinks and alcohol.

“The easiest way to prevent heat-related problems is to keep your head and your clothes wet,” Hayden said.

“If you’re hot and you put a cold rag on your head or keep your hair wet, keep your hands moist and your legs and feet wet, you’re going to cool off quicker. Drink lots of fluids, but not alcohol. That can help further dehydrate someone, if they drink alcohol.”

Heat exhaustion is also fairly common in the hot summer months.

“People get behind in their fluids, they get dizzy and nauseated and get muscle cramps,” said Dr. Keith Dismukes of the Ketcham-Dismukes Clinic.

“It’s particularly bad when the temperature is up and the humidity is high.”

Dismukes said heat exhaustion strikes when people get out in the heat in the middle part of the day, sweat a lot and don’t rehydrate themselves.

“Try to avoid the heat in the worst part of the day. Try to stay well hydrated both before and as you start sweating and try to keep up with your fluid loss.

“It’s best to stay away from caffeinated beverages because they have a diuretic effect.,” he said. “You have to urinate a lot and may be doing more harm than good in the long run.”

Sunburns, the other most common heat-related illness, can be prevented by wearing protective clothing and avoiding being outdoors between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Shade does not necessarily prevent sunburn, as the radiation from sunlight reflects off of the ground, sand or water.

Dismukes recommended wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from radiation and wearing and re-applying sunscreen when out in the sun.

Although not as common as the other ailments, the most serious of all heat-related illnesses is heat stroke.

Curtis said he treats two or three heat stroke cases each year.

“Heat stroke is a true emergency,” said Curtis. “It’s when the body loses the ability to regulate heat.”

Symptoms of a heat-related illness, including heat stroke, are infrequent urination, lightheadedness, headaches, nausea and cramps.

Those suffering from any heat-related illness, especially heat stroke, should seek emergency medical attention immediately.

“When you get medical emergencies from heat stroke is when the body core temperature begins to rise,” Hayden said. “The hotter you get, the faster your enzymes work, and you actually start to generate more and more heat. “

When somebody begins to get really hot, like above 101 degrees, their metabolism goes up and they stop sweating because they’ve run out of water. Then, they’re no longer going to be able to cool down, and they’re going to cook, and that’s when you get a life-threatening emergency.”

“If you think there is a problem, the longer you wait [to get medical attention], the more chance you have to get in trouble,” Curtis warned.

Summertime is always fun time for everyone, but there are also health hazards connected with the heat.

With the right precautions, including plenty of fluids and limited exposure to the sun, you can help make sure that it stays fun for everyone.