Heatstroke: A Doctor Offers Tips to Stay Safe as Temperatures Soar

I remember laughing at Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner while watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child. I can still see Coyote walking slowly through the sweltering desert—the sun high in the sky—sweating, tongue hanging out, and about to collapse from heat, hunger, and thirst. Then, “Beep! Beep!” The Road Runner would fly past, and the chase was on with a perfectly revived Coyote.

If only fixing heatstroke was that quick and easy.

As a primary care physician who treats patients with heat-related illnesses, I know that heatstroke is certainly no laughing matter. Each summer, a heat wave (or 10) rolls over the United States, precipitating a rash of death and hospitalizations related to what is, in doctor-speak, “severe non-exertional hyperthermia.”

Let’s stick to calling it heatstroke, and here are some tips on how to prevent this potentially deadly condition.

Heatstroke happens when a person’s core body temperature rises too high (often to more than 104 degrees F) because high environmental temperature (typically above 90 degrees F) and humidity (above  70 percent relative humidity) prevent the body from cooling through its normal means of sweating and breathing. As heatstroke develops, the heart beats fast, the lungs breathe fast, one feels dizzy and nauseated, the muscles cramp, and one becomes confused, eventually losing consciousness entirely.

Without medical intervention, heatstroke is often fatal. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that on average, about 658 Americans die each year from heatstroke (pdf).

Victims of heat stroke can be of any age, but more often, it’s the elderly, particularly those above the age of 70, who suffer. As people age, their bodies’ ability to cool declines, and the elderly often take medication that further impairs this ability. In addition, older people may not be aware of when a dangerous heat wave arrives and may not have working air conditioning in their homes or anyone to check on them. As a physician, I know from experience how the heat of summer and the cold of winter test the lives of the very old.

Other factors that increase the risk of heatstroke are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Hydration, rest, and finding a place to cool down are the keys to preventing heatstroke. If you don’t have an air-conditioned home or car, steps to take include:

  • Wearing light, breathable clothing
  • Avoiding time in direct sunlight
  • Not exercising during the hot hours of the day
  • Spraying yourself with water and sitting in front of a fan
  • Taking a cool bath or shower
  • Placing a cold pack on your neck or armpit

In a heat wave, please take time to check in with your older neighbors, family, and friends to make sure they have the means to stay cool.

Fans help, not by lowering the air temperature, but by causing air movement over the skin, causing evaporation of sweat, which lowers the body temperature. So fans are useful when there’s no air conditioning, but having an air-conditioned space is best.

Heatstroke is preventable—just stay cool and hydrated. Simple, right? But during a heat wave, that’s easier said than done, particularly for the poor and elderly. If you encounter someone with the symptoms of heatstroke, call 911 to get them to an emergency room for evaluation and treatment.The Conversation

Gabriel Neal, clinical associate professor of family medicine, Texas A&M University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What topics would you like to read about? Please let us know at health@epochtimes.nyc

Gabriel Neal is a board-certified family medicine physician and a fellow at the American Academy of Family Physicians. He is a clinical associate professor at Texas A&M University.
You May Also Like