Get familiar with the signs of heat-related illnesses, before you head out for a sunny summer getaway.
Once at your destination, build in time for your body to adjust to the climate. If you’re lounging by the water and taking only short walks, your risk of a heat illness is low. But if you’re not in great shape and aren’t used to the heat, beware of strenuous activities like hiking and biking.
Your body’s cooling system could fail if you’re in high temperatures and humidity for too long, sweating heavily, and not drinking the right fluids. Toss in a few fruity alcoholic beverages and you could be thrown for a loop.
Respect your fitness level. If you’re out of shape, go slow, even for fun activities like kayaking. Take frequent breaks. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink bottled water. And don’t forget the sunscreen.
Heat-related illnesses include:
- Heat cramps: painful muscle contractions, usually after exercising in the heat.
- Heat syncope: light headedness or fainting caused by high temperatures.
- Exercise-associated collapse: light headedness or fainting right after exercising.
- Heat exhaustion: body temperature as high as 104 Fahrenheit with cold, clammy skin, headache, weakness, nausea and vomiting.
- Heat stroke: the above symptoms plus a body temperature over 104 F; you may no longer be able to sweat to cool yourself.
Extreme heat can affect anybody. Those most at risk are older people, young children, and people with medical conditions. Heat stress occurs when our body is unable to cool itself enough to maintain a healthy temperature.
Normally, the body cools itself by sweating, but sometimes sweating isn’t enough and the body temperature keeps rising. Heat-related illness can range from mild conditions such as a rash or cramps to very serious conditions such as heatstroke, which can kill. Overexertion in hot weather, sun or bushfire exposure, and exercising or working in hot, poorly ventilated or confined areas can increase your risk of heat stress. Heat can also make an existing medical condition worse, for example, heart disease.
Anyone can suffer from heat-related illness, but those most at risk are:
- People over 65 years, particularly those living alone or without air conditioning
- Babies and young children
- Pregnant and nursing mothers
- People who are physically unwell, especially with heart disease, high blood pressure or lung disease
- People on medications for mental illness.
Elderly people are more prone to heat stress than younger people because their bodies may not adjust well to sudden or prolonged temperature changes. They are also more likely to have a chronic medical condition and be taking medication that may interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
There are many factors that can cause heat stress and heat-related illness, including:
- Dehydration – to keep healthy, our body temperature needs to stay around 37°C. The body cools itself by sweating, which normally accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the body’s heat loss. If a person becomes dehydrated, they don’t sweat as much and their body temperature keeps rising.
- Lack of airflow – working in hot, poorly ventilated or confined areas.
- Sun exposure – especially on hot days, between 11am and 3pm.
- Hot and crowded conditions – people attending large events (concerts, dance parties or sporting events) in hot or crowded conditions may also experience heat stress that can result in illness.
- Bushfires – exposure to radiant heat from bushfires can cause rapid dehydration and heat-related illness. Bushfires usually occur when the temperature is high, which adds to the risk.
It is important to know the signs and symptoms of heat exposure and how you should respond. Symptoms vary according to the type of heat-related illness. Babies and young children may show signs of restlessness or irritability and have fewer wet nappies. Older people may become lightheaded, confused, weak or faint.
Some heat-related illness and common symptoms include:
- Deterioration in existing medical conditions – this is the most common health problem of heat stress.
- Heat rash – sometimes called ‘prickly heat’, this is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating. It can occur at any age, but is most common in young children. It looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It is most likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts and in the elbow creases.
- Heat cramps – these include muscle pains or spasms, usually in the abdomen, arms or legs. They may occur after strenuous activity in a hot environment, when the body gets depleted of salt and water. They may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion.
- Dizziness and fainting – heat-related dizziness and fainting results from reduced blood flow to the brain. Heat causes an increase in blood flow to the skin and pooling of blood in the legs, which can lead to a sudden drop in blood pressure. There can be a feeling of light-headedness before fainting occurs.
- Heat exhaustion – this is a serious condition that can develop into heatstroke. It occurs when excessive sweating in a hot environment reduces the blood volume. Warning signs may include paleness and sweating, rapid heart rate, muscle cramps (usually in the abdomen, arms or legs), headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness or fainting.
- Heatstroke – this is a medical emergency and requires urgent attention. Heatstroke occurs when the core body temperature rises above 40.5 °C and the body’s internal systems start to shut down. Many organs in the body suffer damage and the body temperature must be reduced quickly. Most people will have profound central nervous system changes such as delirium, coma and seizures. The person may stagger, appear confused, have a fit or collapse and become unconscious. As well as effects on the nervous system, there can be liver, kidney, muscle and heart damage.
The symptoms of heatstroke may be the same as for heat exhaustion, but the skin may be dry with no sweating and the person’s mental condition worsens.
According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC), heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. If you’re spending a lot of time traveling in a place where temperatures are high, follow these simple tips on preventing heat stroke, as recommended by CDC.
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- Keep hydrated. Increase fluid intake, regardless of activity level, even if you don’t feel thirsty. During periods of heavy activity in the heat, drink 2-4 glasses of water each hour.
- Drink cool, but not very cold, non – alcoholic beverages that do not contain large amounts of sugar.
- Avoid hot foods and heavy meals.
- Take the same precautions as you would for sunburn. Wear clothing that is labelled as sun-protective. Such clothing carries a UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor rating. Also, wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face and neck.
- Be aware of your activity level, and pace yourself. If you are not used to working or exercising in the heat, start slowly and build up the pace gradually. Limit outdoor activity to morning and evening. If there is shade, rest in it until your body temperature returns to normal.
- If possible, seek air conditioned venues like shopping malls, public libraries, museums or movie theatres. If you’re in a location with only fans, remember that once temperatures get to the high 90s, a fan will not prevent heat-related illness.
- Take a cool shower or bath to help lower your body temperature.
- Never leave children in cars. Even with the windows cracked open, interior temperatures can rise almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit within ten minutes. Also, dress children in cool, loose clothing, and shade their faces with hats or an umbrella.
While these tips should be taken into account while traveling, it is wise to consult your doctor before traveling to extremely hot destinations. And always get travel insurance — just in case.