by Kimberly Allen, RN
So far this summer at least 21 children have died of heat stroke after either being left in a vehicle or getting into a vehicle without anyone noticing. And it’s only July. In the US the yearly death rate of children from heat related illness has doubled from previous years. Children are more sensitive to the extreme temperatures like heat because their system that regulates their body temperature is not fully developed. Not all children will die from heat exposure, however they can develop heat related illness ranging from mild heat exhaustion to severe hyperthermia.
Children are not the only ones affected by extreme heat. Last year 32 people died in just one lengthy heat wave last summer. Those most affected by the ‘heat wave’ that has been affecting much of the US are the elderly and those suffering from an acute chronic illness as well as the very young. People with chronic heart and/or respiratory conditions have a significant risk of succumbing to the extreme heat because this weather makes breathing and heart problems worse. The extreme heat also affects healthy active adults. If you’re a person that works outside regularly or an athlete that plays and/or trains outside regularly regardless of the temperature you are at risk as well. There are also certain medications that can affect how your body regulates your temperature putting you at risk for heat related illness.
Key to preventing serious heat related illness and death is being aware of the symptoms that you or someone you know is experiencing a heat related illness. The milder form of heat illness is know as heat exhaustion. If you or someone you know has heat exhaustion you would notice heavy perspiration and the skin will be cool and moist. Other symptoms of heat exhaustion including weakness and fatigue, headache and muscle cramps as well as paleness. many also have nausea and vomiting as well as fainting. If you check the pulse of someone that has heat exhaustion it is usually rapid and weak.
Left untreated heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. When your body can no longer regulate it’s own temperature it’s known as a heat stroke. Heat stroke is a serious heat related illness that can lead to permanent disability as well as death. In heat stroke your body temperature rises to over 103F and your skin will be hot and dry, instead of heavy perspiration you’ll have no perspiration. With heat stroke you also usually have a pounding headache with nausea and dizziness as well as confusion which can lead to unconscious. If you check the pulse of someone suffering from heat stroke it will be rapid, however instead of being weak it will be strong.
Death and injury due to heat related illness is highly preventable. According to the CDC the 650 deaths that occur each year due to extreme heat could be prevented. It is vital to have a ‘heat response plan’ especially for people that are elderly or live alone and don’t have air conditioning. It’s important to focus on interventions that are practical, to limit their exposure to the heat during an extreme heat event. Water is the perfect liquid for hydrating your body. It’s important to avoid drinking liquids high in caffeine and sugar , which includes some energy and sport drinks as they can actually lead to increased fluid loss and dehydration. Another key to avoiding heat related illness is to avoid alcoholic beverages as they can also cause you to dehydrate faster leading to heat stroke.
If you or someone you see is demonstrating symptoms of heat related illness it’s important to get to a shaded area and rest as well as drink cool liquid preferably water. If you feel someone is experiencing heat stroke it’s important to bring their body temperature down. You can help lower their body temperature by loosening their clothing, pouring cool water over them or putting them in a tub or pool of cool water. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency, call for medical assistance immediately.
In many places the winters are long and everyone looks forward to enjoying the summer sun and warm weather, however, it’s important to be wise and stay hydrated. Always be aware of heat advisories and prepare for them. Be a good neighbor, if you know someone that is at risk for developing a heat related illness check on them regularly.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.