With summer temperatures reaching over 90 degrees, heat-related illnesses become a concern for many. Richard Samuel, MD, medical director for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, answers questions about how to stay safe in extreme heat conditions.

What is considered “extreme heat”?

Dr. Samuel: Extreme heat describes an extended of period of high heat and high humidity lasting for at least two days. In most of the United States, temperatures exceeding 90 degrees will generally be considered extreme. In these conditions, your body works harder to maintain its normal temperature, which can quickly lead to serious health complications.

Who is at greatest risk of a heat-related illness?

Dr. Samuel: The groups most at risk for a heat-related illness are:

  • Children under four and adults over 65 years of age
  • Those that are overweight
  • Those with heart-related conditions, such as high-blood pressure, arrhythmia and coronary artery disease
  • Outdoor workers, such as landscapers and those in construction
  • Individuals who exercise outside

What are common heat-related health conditions and their symptoms I should look out for?

Dr. Samuel: When temperatures start to rise, be on the look for these common illnesses:

Heat Rashes

One of the most common heat-related illness we see are heat rashes. They develop when sweat becomes trapped under your skin because of blocked pores. The rash is usually itchy and appears as clusters of small blisters that look like pimples. Heat rashes generally heal on their own in a few days and can be relieved by keeping the affected area dry. Using baby powder can also help keep the area dry.

Sunburn

A sunburn occurs when your skin burns from overexposure to sunlight or sunlamps. The most common symptoms are red, tender skin and blistering, swelling or peeling on the affected area. Symptoms usually arise four hours after sun exposure and can worsen over the next day or two before eventually healing on its own. Symptoms can be relieved by drinking water and applying aloe or hydrocortisone cream to affected areas. The best way to prevent sunburn is to apply sunscreen whenever you are spending time in the sun.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion occurs after your body loses too much water and salt after spending a long period of time exposed to high temperatures. The elderly and those who work and exercise outdoors are especially prone to heat exhaustion. Common symptoms include heavy sweating, nausea, heat cramps and shallow breathing. Cool your body down by drinking plenty of cold water, going to an air-conditioned environment and taking a cool shower.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are a common symptom of heat exhaustion, but can also occur by itself. Heat cramps arise when the lack of salt in your body make your muscles cramp, especially the ones used for performing everyday tasks. If you have heat cramps, stop all activity and drink fluids. If your heat cramps get worse after an hour, you could be developing a more serious heat-related illness and it’s best to seek medical attention right away.

Heat Stroke

A heat stroke is a serious heat-related illness occurring when your body’s temperature control system is unable to regulate itself. It causes you to become severely hot within 10 to 15 minutes. Warning signs include an extremely high body temperature of at least 103 degrees, rapid pulse, confusion and hot, dry skin that is unable to produce sweat. Heat strokes are life-threatening medical emergencies and must be treated immediately to avoid damage to your brain and other vital organs. If you or someone else begins to experience any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1 right away.

How can I help myself or someone else suffering from a heat-related condition?

Dr. Samuel: If you or someone else begins to experience heavy sweating, nausea, cramps, rapid pulse, shallowing breathing or confusion, move to a shady or air-conditioned space and focus on cooling down. Try to spray or sponge them with cool water or put them in a tub or shower with cool water to help lower their body temperature. Continue to monitor their body temperature until it returns to normal. If the symptoms do not subside, seek medical attention as soon as possible to avoid permanent damage.

How can I prevent heat-related illnesses if I’ll be spending time outdoors?

Dr. Samuel: Here are some tips you can follow to keep you and your family safe in the summer heat:

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing
  • Avoid overexerting yourself outdoors. If you exercise outdoors, the best time is in the morning before it becomes too hot
  • Always wear sunscreen
  • Remove children or pets from hot vehicles
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water and avoid sugary drinks like soda
  • Take breaks and seek shady or air-conditioned spaces
  • Check the weather forecast for extreme heat warnings and alerts

Sources: Centers for Disease ControlUnited States Department of LaborDepartment of Homeland Security 

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