Heat related health conditions can progress quickly into life threatening situations. These are thus better identified earlier and treated promptly.
Prevention of heat exposure especially in the vulnerable groups is vital. Physicians should advise patients to:
- protect themselves by avoiding excessive heat exposure
- maintain adequate hydration
- wear appropriate summer clothing
- regulate exertion levels with respect to hydration.
This advice is especially true during heat waves and when travelling to hot and humid countries abroad.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke may be prevented by staying out of the heat, keeping oneself cool, keeping the surroundings cool and so forth.
Staying out of the heat
This involves staying indoors and out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day between 11am and 3pm. However, heat stroke may occur due to sun exposure before and after this time as well.
In case one has to go out in the sun during the hot hours protection must be sought. This includes walking in the shade, using an umbrella or a wide brimmed hat or scarf, and apply sunscreen.
Keeping oneself cool
This is done by having plenty of cool drinks. Drinks with caffeine or alcohol however should be avoided as they cause dehydration. Water, fruit juices as well as fruits and salads that contain fluids are encouraged.
One can also stay cool by having more frequent baths, spraying the skin with water or keeping a wet and damp cloth over the head and neck while out in the heat.
Keeping the surroundings cool
The living area, particularly the sleeping rooms, should be cool. A thermometer may be placed to keep the temperature in check.
Windows that are exposed to the direct sun during the day need to be kept closed and shuttered with blinds and dark curtains. Windows should be opened at night when the temperature has dropped.
The house should be insulated against external heat. Equipment that generates heat should be kept switched off when not in use and there should be trees and leafy plants near windows to cool the air around the house and provide shade.
Keeping watch over the vulnerable
Old, feeble, debilitated individuals and babies and infants should be watched over for signs of heat exhaustion. They should not be left alone in parked cars in the sun.
Elderly women are more at risk mainly because they have fewer sweat glands and also because they tend to live alone. Neighbours should keep a watch on these women and contact social services if needed.
Those with certain diseases are at risk of heat related health conditions and need extra attention towards cooling. These include people with:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- cystic fibrosis
- diabetes insipidus
- gastroenteritis and diarrhea
- Parkinson’s disease
- thyroid over activity and thyrotoxicosis
Mental disorders, dementia, memory loss, depression etc. also predispose to wandering and risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Obese individuals who indulge in sudden exercise, diabetics and those with sweat gland dysfunction also need special care.
Those on certain medications need to be paid special attention to too. These include people taking:
- benzodiazepines (tranquilizers)
- beta-blockers and calcium-channel blockers and diuretics or water pills (for high blood pressure treatment)
- antipsychotics (in mental disorders)
- alpha-adrenergics (used in high blood pressure)
- antihistamines (used in allergies)
- tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (both used in depressive disorders)
- lithium (mood stabilizing agent)
These people can wear special medical bracelets to indicate their medication intake.
Drug abusers who use amphetamines (speed and crystal meth), cocaine, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), phencyclidine (PCP), ecstasy etc. are also at risk of heat stroke and need watching out for.
Acclimatising to hotter countries
While travelling to hotter countries it is important to give the body at least a week to 10 days to get used to the temperature difference.
The main advice is to keep oneself cool and hydrated and wear appropriate loose and light clothing and avoid too much alcohol.
Athletes should acclimatise for three to four days before beginning on strenuous exercise in a hotter country. They may build up activity levels over a two to three-week period.
Reviewed by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)