Heat-related Illnesses

Ah, summertime. It brings baseball games and trips to the pool, picnics and outside playtime in the long, sunny days.

It also can bring, unfortunately, dangerously hot conditions. Do you know what to do if someone you love is overheating? Heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, happen when the body is not able to properly cool itself.

While the body normally cools itself by sweating, during extreme heat, this might not be enough. In these cases, a person's body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down. This can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs.

Heat Stroke

"Heat stroke is a big problem for workers who are overdoing it on the job and can't say, 'I have to cool down and take a break,'" says Sue Leahy, president of the American Safety and Health Institute in New Paltz, N.Y. Older people, too, are susceptible, especially in a hot apartment with no air conditioning. Stay ultra-hydrated to avoid heat stroke, she says.

"Water is OK, but Gatorade and PowerAde with electrolytes are far better because they help replace salt and retain fluid," she says.

Knowing the warning signs is also key to staving off serious trouble, she says. "The first sign is cramping in the legs, and if that occurs, cool off and drink fluid until it goes away because if you don't, it can progress to heat exhaustion and then heat stroke," Leahy cautions.

"Cramping – especially a cramp in the leg – is a sign that the body is losing salt and electrolytes, and you really ought to heed it," Leahy says. "Cramping and light sweating gives way to more profuse, heavier sweating, feeling lightheaded and maybe a little nauseous, and then you hit heat stroke, your body stops sweating, and can no longer cool itself," she says.

Another peril of heat stroke is that as the body gets hotter and hotter, your blood gets thick and sludgy and makes you more likely to have a stroke, she says.

Some of the signs of heat stroke include:

  • Red, hot, dry skin
  • Rapid pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness

"Let the body cool down naturally in early stages of heat exhaustion, but if you miss the signs and it progresses, put ice packs on the groin, armpits and neck where blood flows close to the surface," she says.

Other ways to cool the body include immersing the body in cool water, placing the person in a cool shower, or wrapping the person in a cool, wet blanket.

Rules to Live By

"When you are sweating too much, it's time to come out of the sun," she says. I wouldn't do anything in the hot sun for longer than 15 or 20 minutes at a clip because the body can lose a significant amount of water content from sweating – setting you up for heat stroke."

Children pose a special challenge during the summer, says Denise Salerno, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Temple University in Philadelphia. No matter what the potential peril is, "the key is being prepared. Travel with a little first aid kit and make sure you have it where it's readily available to save trips to the ER," she says.

"The biggest warning that a kid is getting overheated is if they are complaining and have started to sweat," she says. Remember that "if it gets to an extreme, they don't sweat. If a child complains of lightheadedness, take them out of the game."

To nip heat stroke in the bud, "take them into a cool place and make sure they are hydrated with water or a sports drink."

By Denise Mann for WebMD
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
© 2004 WebMD, Inc. All rights Reserved.

This Summer, Join FHN in the Heatstroke Awareness Challenge

In just 10 minutes, a car can heat up by 20 degrees, and rolling down a window does little to keep it cool. Children who are left in vehicles or get in and can’t get out on their own die every summer due to heatstroke.

Pick up a FREE Auto Alert high heat indicator for National Heatstroke Prevention Day at FHN! Find out more by downloading our flyer.

Listen to Dr. James Kolka, FHN Chief Physician Executive, talk about heat-related illnesses on the Talk of the Town radio show.