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  • Dr. Hicks

With heat waves across the world, are there heat related illnesses?

Summer means more time outside, with many reasons to do so, be it walking, swimming, hiking, gardening, or more demanding activities such as recreational sports or occupations. And, while the great outdoors offers many health advantages, such as increased levels of Vitamin D and the many benefits of being active, there can also be a downside to too much time in the sun.

Heat cramps, heat rash, and heat exhaustion are common among athletes as well as for those who work outside for a living including firefighters, those who serve in the military and construction workers. Many times, simply replenishing fluids can alleviate symptoms, but extended periods of exposure, coupled with a lack of fluids, can lead to a more severe condition, known as heat stroke. Heat stroke can damage vital organs including the brain, heart, kidneys, and liver, and in a small percentage of cases, can lead to death (about 2% of heat stroke victims die from the malady).

While the human body has a remarkable ability to adjust to the cold, it is not designed to accommodate an increase in body temperature by more than a few degrees. When the mercury on the thermostat shows nothing but red, some people will be best served by staying indoors – especially those taking medications that can exacerbate heat related illness.

Luckily the human body has the ability to acclimate, so those who are often exposed to elevated temperatures will show an increased tolerance and the ability to work in high temperatures for longer periods of time. However, a few precautions must be taken to avoid some of the dangers of overexposure.

First, bring along and drink plenty of water or make sure you will have access to other fluids. Staying hydrated is the antidote to long term exertion in the heat. If water does not appeal to you, some sport drinks can be helpful in replacing both salt and electrolytes and is a suitable alternative. Contrary to widespread belief, alcohol and sugary drinks do not keep the body hydrated. In fact, they interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature, and very cold drinks can lead to stomach cramping. Second, having access to a fan to circulate and cool down the air can be helpful as well as having a mister or taking a dip in a pool, creek, or slow-moving river to lower your body temperature.

And of course, taking cover in the shade can help keep you cool in extreme heat. Your body will let you know if you are over exposed or over exerted. Pay attention to early warning signs including cramps, a rash, fatigue, headaches, or light-headedness. If these symptoms are present, get into the shade as soon as possible. Remove excess clothing and use whatever means available to cool down. Put ice packs or a cold, wet cloth on your head and neck.

If symptoms persist, seek treatment at your local urgent care or emergency facility. The human body is a remarkable, adaptive machine. Treat it well! Use sunscreen to protect your skin and keep your body cool as it works hard to help you enjoy these dog days of summer.

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