The Heat is On!
While we continue to maintain our COVID-19 precautions—handwashing, masking, and distancing—we can’t forget to take action to prevent the common illnesses and injuries that affect us every year.
In the heat of the summer, we think about the common conditions caused by overheating. They are dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat syncope or fainting due to high temperatures. These illnesses are dangerous in and of themselves and also cause falls and injuries, especially among older adults.
Here’s a quick review of each:
- Dehydration, a lack of water in your body, can be serious. It causes weakness, headache, muscle cramps, dizziness, confusion, and passing out. Note that dehydration can happen in any weather, but it’s more common in high temperatures.
- Heat exhaustion causes muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, paleness, cold or clammy skin, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, fast and weak pulse, and fainting. Body temperatures of those with heat exhaustion are typically 98.6 – 104ºF. A combination of heat and dehydration, heat exhaustion, can lead to more serious heat stroke.
- Heat stroke, caused by a rise in body temperature, can be deadly. It is characterized by hot, red, dry skin; a fast pulse; headache; nausea and vomiting; confusion and lethargy; and passing out.
- Heat syncope is fainting caused by hot temperatures. People get dizzy and faint, which can cause falling injuries.
As always, the best way to treat any condition is to avoid getting it in the first place. There are a number of simple steps you can take to prevent heat-related illness this summer.
- Take care of the inside. Be sure to drink plenty of caffeine- and alcohol-free beverages. Water is best, but Gatorade or other sports drinks may also be appropriate to replenish electrolytes, a crucial component in maintaining a steady heart rhythm. Older people, in particular, may lose their sense of thirst. Keep a drink nearby and sip often!
- Take care of the outside. Start with sunscreen, which in addition to providing a reflective effect also helps prevent skin cancer. Wear breezy natural fabrics, like cotton and linen, in light colors. Top it off with a brimmed hat and sunglasses.
- Take care when outside. Even with all of the right gear and preparation, it makes sense to avoid sun during peak hours, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and enjoy the shade instead. Especially in the early morning and in the evening, don’t forget the bug spray, too. Tick- and mosquito-borne illnesses are not to be overlooked.
- Take action early. If you notice that you are feeling any of the symptoms above, have a drink and cool down with a tepid shower or a wet wash cloth. Lay down. If you don’t feel better within a few minutes, don’t hesitate to call 911. Any one of the conditions above can be serious when overlooked or allowed to persist.
When taken together with the precautions for preventing COVID-19—frequent handwashing, keeping 6 feet from others, and wearing a mask in public—these tips for avoiding heat-related illness will help make this summer a cool one!
Lisa Downing-Forget, MD, is an internal medicine physician treating those 60 and older at SVMC Internal Medicine in Bennington.