The first sign of dangerous heat stroke can be just that – no sweat. As the temperature rises, your body’s natural cooling mechanism, sweat (or more kindly, perspiration), evaporates and helps to cool your body. But on those hot, humid cut-the-air-with-a knife days, evaporation is slowed and your body may not be able to keep itself cool.
"The best defense against any heat-related illness is prevention. Be extra careful when the heat index is 90 degrees or above. (The heat index tells you how hot it feels in the shade when relative humidity combines with the air temperature.) Always, always drink plenty of water when the heat index is high and avoid caffeine and alcohol. If you must be outdoors, take frequent breaks inside or in the shade,” says Marilyn J. Heine, M.D., a Bucks County emergency physician and member of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
"If you take precautions and know the warning signs, you generally can prevent heat stoke. Keep a close watch on the elderly and infants, people on certain medications, athletes and outdoor workers.”
Recognize these warning signs:
- Pale skin
- Fatigue, weakness
- Dizzy or nauseous
- Sweating profusely
- Rapid pulse
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Muscle weakness or cramps
Dr. Heine explains, “If you experience any of these symptoms, get out of the heat quickly and rest in a cool, shady place. Drink plenty of water or other fluids containing sugar and salt. Do NOT drink alcohol; that can make it worse. If you don’t feel better within 30 minutes, contact your doctor. If heat exhaustion isn’t treated, it can progress to heat stroke.”
Seek treatment immediately if any of these warning signs are present:
- Skin that feels hot and dry, but not sweaty
- Confusion or loss of consciousness
- Throbbing headache
- Frequent vomiting
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
Heat stroke is much more serious than heat exhaustion -- it can kill you. People with heat stroke may have seizures or go into a coma and most also have a fever.
"If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 immediately," Dr. Heine says, "Move the victim to a cooler location, remove heavy clothing, fan the body and wet it down with a cool sponge or cloth, and encourage the individual to drink cool fluids." At the hospital, the patient probably will be given fluids intravenously.
The key to beating the heat, of course, is prevention. Dr. Heine offers the following tips for keeping cool and healthy despite the sweltering sun and humidity.
- Don't overexert yourself.
- Drink a quart of fluids an hour.
- Wear loose clothing light in color and fabric, as well as a hat and sunblock, and stay in the shade or indoors if possible.
- Open windows and use fans, or turn on air conditioning. If you don't have air conditioning, go to a public place that does, like a mall, library, or movie theater.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can speed up dehydration.
- Finally, be a good neighbor - check on the elderly and chronically ill persons regularly to make sure they're bearing up under the heat.
Having heat exhaustion or heat stroke makes you more sensitive to hot conditions for about a week afterwards. Be especially careful not to exercise too hard, and avoid hot weather. Ask your doctor to tell you when it is safe to return to your normal activities.
According to Dr. Heine, there are two types of heat stroke, and everyone is susceptible, athletes and couch potatoes alike. Classic or non-exercise-induced heat stroke affects those exposed to extremely hot environments for an intolerable length of time.
Infants and young children
Babies and young children don’t have the ability to hydrate themselves or know when to get out of the heat.
- Never leave a child in a closed, parked vehicle, not even for a minute. The temperature inside a parked car can soar into triple digits within minutes. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Don’t do it.
- Make sure babies and children drink plenty of fluids. If you are thirsty, chances are your little ones could also use a beverage. Avoid beverages with caffeine, or a large amount of sugar.
- Avoid bundling infants in heavy blankets or clothing. Like adults, babies need to air out in order to cool down.
- During the hottest hours of the day, keep children indoors in an air-conditioned environment as much as possible. Families without air conditioning should pull shades over the windows and use room fans.
The elderly or infirm
The elderly are more prone to heat-related illness for several reasons:
- Their bodies do not adjust well to sudden changes in temperature.
- They are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that upsets normal body responses to heat.
- They are more likely to take prescription medicines that impair the body's ability to regulate its temperature or that inhibit perspiration.
Dr. Heine recalls a 78-year-old woman who was transported by ambulance to the emergency department after a neighbor noticed she hadn't been out of her apartment for two days. The temperature had surpassed 90 degrees and the humidity was stifling. The woman was dehydrated, with a temperature of 104.7 degrees and a decreased blood pressure of 100/70. She was treated with intravenous fluids and then hospitalized.
You can help:
- Visit older adults at risk at least twice a day and watch for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
- Take them to air-conditioned locations if they have transportation problems.
- Make sure older adults have an electric fan and can take a cool shower or bath.
People taking certain medications
Many medications also can put you in danger of heat stroke: