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Surviving Heat Waves: Is Heat Illness That Serious?

Image of Sunburn

It's summer and it's hot. In fact, the upcoming heat index makes it seem like you can fry an egg on the sidewalk. You panic at the thought of yet another thing to prepare for - heat illness.
Heat illness can ruin summer plans suddenly if you don't know what preventative steps to take - or how to treat them.

A Quick 101 on Heat Illness

On average, 658 people suffer from heat illness each year. In 2018, 2 people in Pennsylvania died because of heat illness. Here's what happens:
  1. Your body is supposed to cool itself down through sweating, but severe heat and humidity slow down your body's cooling off process.
  2. So your body temperature can become extremely high.
  3. And now you're at risk for a heat illness.

Realistically, your body may react negatively to heat at any given temperature - but once it hits 91°F outside, you're recommended to take preventative measures.
Here's how to keep you and your family safe from extreme summer heat.
What Are the 6 Types of Heat Illness?

1. Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the most severe type of heat illness and is potentially life-threatening. It happens when extreme heat causes your body's internal temperature to reach over 106°F. Get emergency medical care immediately if you are experiencing signs of heat stroke.

Heat stroke symptoms include:
  • 103°F or higher body temperature
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hot to touch and visibly red skin
  • Damp or dry skin
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Heat syncope (fainting or dizziness)

What to Do If You Have Heat Stroke

Call 9-1-1 right away. While waiting for help and if possible, wait inside for them while applying cooling aids - such as a cold pack or ice - to lower your body temperature.
DO NOT attempt to drink anything other than water until you’re examined by an emergency medical team.
2. Sunburn
When your skin is exposed to extreme heat it may become warm to touch, red, and painful - as well as blistering. If this happens, you more than likely have a sunburn.
What to Do If You Have a Sunburn

To treat a sunburn, you are advised to stay out of the sun until it heals. Placing cool cloths or soaking in a cool bath followed up by soothing lotion, like aloe vera or Eucerin, can relieve your pain.

Do not pick your blisters. It can slow healing and cause more pain.

"Be careful about treatments you find on the internet, or recommendations from friends, as these can actually make the situation worse. For example, some people use oil-based products, like butter or petroleum jelly, to relieve the burning. However, these block the pores so that sweat and heat can't escape. And this can lead to infection," says Aneesha Dhargalkar, MD, an emergency medicine physician and medical facilities physician director on the medical staff at Chester County Hospital.

3. Heat Rash

If you sweat excessively during hotter temperatures, your skin may become irritated and develop a rash. Younger children experience heat rash more commonly than other age groups.

You'll know if your child has a heat rash if you notice clusters of small, red blisters in the creases of their neck, elbow, chest, or groin.

What to Do If You Have a Heat Rash

Return to a cool, dry environment and soothe your rash with baby powder. Make sure you keep the area dry in order for it to heal.

4. Heat Cramps

When you're participating in intense physical activities, you may be putting yourself at risk for heat cramps. You'll know you have heat cramps if you're having muscle spasms in your arms, legs, or abdomen.

What to Do If You Have Heat Cramps

Return to a cool environment where you can rest and rehydrate with electrolytes. Electrolytes are best because they are minerals that aid in balancing your body's water levels.
Applying gentle pressure to your sore areas may help relieve your pain.

Some people require emergency medical help right away, especially if:
  • They are on a low sodium diet
  • They have heart problems
  • They experience cramping for an hour or more

Image of Hot Sun
5. Heat Exhaustion

Being exposed to high temperatures for more than a day and not drinking enough water may put you at risk for heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include:
  • Rapid, faint pulse
  • Excessive sweating
  • Skin that is cold, pale, and moist
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Dizzy spells
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting 
What to Do If You Have Heat Exhaustion

Go back inside and change out of your clothing. Applying cool cloths or soaking in a cool bath while taking sips of water can help you recuperate.

If you are vomiting, your symptoms become worse, or you're feeling exhausted for more than an hour - seek emergency medical care immediately.

6. Heat Syncope

When you've been exposed to high temperatures while standing for a long time or standing up too quickly from a resting position, you may feel dizzy as a result. This feeling is a sign of heat syncope.

What to Do If You Have Heat Syncope

The key to recovery is resting in a cool setting and rehydrating your body by slowly drinking plenty of fluids.

Young Children and Seniors Are at Higher Risk for Heat Illness

In the blistering summer heat, don't forget about those who may be more vulnerable.

"Some people are at higher risk for heat illness than others, especially children up to 4 years old and adults 65 years or older. This is because their bodies are more sensitive to extreme temperatures. They rely on help from their loved ones - like you - to take preventative measures and to stay safe," adds Dr. Dhargalkar.

Check on your older family remembers at least twice a day during those egg-frying temperatures.

Never leave your infant or toddler in or near a car unsupervised. From 1998 to 2017, there were 11 pediatric heat stroke deaths in Pennsylvania. Additionally, there have been 9 reported toddler deaths nationwide in 2019 as a result of being left in a hot car. They may also accidentally lock themselves in the car, especially in the trunk, without you noticing.

Others to be mindful of during a heat wave:
  • People who are overweight
  • People living with health conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure
  • People on prescription medications for depression, insomnia, or poor circulation
  • Pets who are home alone or usually left outside when you're away
Make sure to check on vulnerable loved ones during heat waves. It can also be helpful to educate other family members on preventative tips to staying safe in extreme heat.
Preventative Measures for the Entire Family

Aside from staying hydrated and keeping cool, there are many steps you and your family can take to stay safe in the heat.
Preventative Tips:
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing
  • Wear hats with wide brims to protect your head and face
  • Reapply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more throughout the day
  • Drink water or an electrolyte enhanced beverage
  • Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages
  • Schedule your activities outside of midday hours which are typically the hottest - between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Take plenty of breaks in cool, shady areas
  • Talk to your health care provider on risks of heat illness because of chronic health conditions or prescription medications you or a loved one may have
Do you have questions about heat illness or would you like to consult a health care provider about preventative measures and treatment options? Call 800-789-PENN (7366) to schedule an appointment with a Chester County primary care physician.

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About this Blog

Chester County Hospital's Health e-Living Blog offers a regular serving of useful health and lifestyle information for the residents of Chester County, PA and the surrounding region.

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