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CDC warns of heat-related dangers

Date: 7/9/2014

SPRINGFIELD – Whoever thought the summer sun could be so deadly?

Each year some 318 people die in the United States of heat-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those having fun in the sun or working outdoors comes the risk of heat-related illnesses such as sun stroke.

As with many illnesses, the best defense is prevention, according to Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair, Emergency Medicine, Baystate Medical Center.

“Those at greatest risk for developing a heat-related illness are children under five years of age and people 65 years of age and older, who have the least ability to regulate their body temperatures,” he said.

Overweight people and others with chronic illnesses such as heart disease or high blood pressure, as well as those on certain medications, are also at high risk.

Schmidt suggests the following tips to keep you safe in the high heat:

• Stay out of the heat – Avoid direct sunlight and strenuous activity outdoors. If possible, remain indoors. If you do not have air conditioning, consider visiting a location that does, such as the mall or a movie theater.

• Dress for the weather – Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and a broad-brimmed hat when outdoors. Stay away from polyester in favor of cotton and linens which are better at repelling the sun’s heat. Also, consider wearing sunglasses and putting on a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or greater.

• Drink plenty of liquids – Begin drinking before you go outside and, if exercising, drink one quart of liquid an hour to replace lost fluid. Avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol which can contribute to the loss of more body fluid. Also, if taking water pills or on a fluid restrictive diet, consult with your physician before increasing your liquid intake.

• Take it slow and easy – Postpone athletic activity during high heat and humidity. Limit outdoor activities to the morning and evening. Drinking sports beverages can replace lost salt and minerals when you sweat. However, those on low-salt diets should check with their doctor before drinking sports beverages. If you work outdoors, in addition to drinking plenty of liquids and dressing appropriately, pace yourself and take frequent short breaks in the shade.

• Eat smaller meals – Instead of the usual rule of eating three square meals a day, eat smaller meals more frequently on days when the sun turns up the heat. Also, avoid high-protein foods which can increase metabolic heat.

• Extreme heat affects the body’s ability to safely regulate its temperature, often resulting in heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or heat cramps. Sweating is the body’s natural defense to cooling itself. However, when humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly and resulting in a rapid rise of body temperature.

Warning signs of an oncoming heat-related illness could include excessive sweating, leg cramps, flushed skin, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headache and rapid pulse. If these occur, Schmidt suggests getting out of the heat and drinking liquids. If you don’t feel better soon, call your doctor or visit your local emergency department.

“Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability and requires immediate emergency medical treatment,” Schmidt  said about the serious condition which can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs.

Warning signs of heat stroke can vary, but may include the following: body temperature of 103º F or higher, dizziness, throbbing headache, nausea, confusion, a rapid, strong pulse, and in extremely critical cases, unconsciousness.

“In addition to taking care of yourself from the ill-effects of the heat, don’t forget to check on elderly relatives and neighbors several times a day to make sure they are safe and free from any signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt also reminds parents and caregivers that hot weather and vehicles can be a deadly combination for kids.

“Children are at serious risk for heat stroke when left alone even for a few minutes in a closed vehicle or even in one with the window left slightly open,” he said.