Recognizing the signs of heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses 

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(Photo courtesy of ADPH)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As we move into summer, it’s only going to get hotter and more humid. If you are working or playing outside, remember to drink plenty of water, take breaks in the shade (or indoors) and be on the lookout for signs of heatstroke.  

Heat-Related Illnesses 

With its extreme temperatures and high humidity, Alabama’s summer climate can lead to heat-related illnesses and deaths if left unchecked. Heat-related illnesses occur when the body’s temperature control system is overloaded. The best course of action is to learn the warnings and signal help when needed. 

Heat Stroke 

Heat stroke, sometimes called sunstroke, is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Warning signs of heat stroke vary, but include the following: 

  • An extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees Fahrenheit) 
  • Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating) 
  • Rapid, strong pulse 
  • Throbbing headache 
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea 
  • Confusion 
  • Unconsciousness 

Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency, so have another person call 911 for medical assistance and take immediate steps to begin cooling the victim in any of the following ways: 

  • Get the person to a shady area, cool rapidly in a tub of cool water, place in a cool shower, spray with cool water from a garden hose, splash with cool water, or if the humidity is low, place in a cool, wet sheet and fan vigorously. 
  • Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the person’s body temperature drops to 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call a hospital emergency room for further instructions. 

A person with heat stroke is likely to be unconscious or unresponsive, so he or she cannot safely consume any liquids. Under no circumstances should you give any alcohol to a person with heat stroke or any heat illness. 

Heat Exhaustion 

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Those most prone to heat exhaustion are the elderly, persons with high blood pressure and those working or exercising in a hot environment. 

Warning signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting and fainting. The skin may be cool and moist. The pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow. Untreated heat exhaustion may progress to heat stroke, so seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or last longer than one hour. 

Stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place, drink clear juice or a sports beverage, wait a few hours until the cramps subside and seek medical attention if cramps do not stop in one hour. 

Heat Cramps 

Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms–usually in the abdomen, arms or legs–that may occur in association with strenuous activity. People who sweat a lot during strenuous activity are prone to heat cramps. To relieve them, apply firm pressure on cramping muscles or gently massage them. Give sips of water every 15 minutes for one hour. 

Follow these preventive measures to avoid heat illnesses: 

  • Drink more fluids, and avoid beverages containing alcohol or caffeine, 
  • When temperatures are extreme, stay indoors, ideally in an air-conditioned place, 
  • Take a cool shower or bath, and reduce or eliminate strenuous activities during the hottest time of the day and 
  • Protect yourself from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and use a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher 
  • Never leave pets or people in a parked vehicle. 

Who is at Risk? 

Although anyone at any age can suffer heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others. People aged 65 or older are particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses and complications that can result during periods of high temperatures and humidity. The risk for heat-related illness and death may increase among people using the following drugs: psychotropics, medications for Parkinson’s disease, tranquilizers and diuretics.