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Heat-related illnesses: signs and symptoms to watch for

Heat-related illnesses: signs and symptoms to watch for

We've all felt it, the unbearable temperatures climbing as the summer goes on. With this heat, it's important to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses that may occur. Let's discuss what to watch out for as well as some tips on staying safe and cool this summer.

With heat-related conditions, there's heatstroke and heat exhaustion - what's the difference?

There are a variety of forms of hyperthermia, but heatstroke and heat exhaustion are two of the most common heat-related conditions. Think of it this way, it’s basically like a continuum of heat-related illnesses. For example, with heat exhaustion, if you don’t treat it and you don’t recognize it and can progress to heatstroke which is absolutely a medical emergency.

Heat exhaustion happens when the body losses too much water or salt through excessive sweating that can come with symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Headache 
  • Elevated body temperature

With heatstroke, the body can’t cool itself. Its temperature rises quickly, and its natural cooling mechanism – sweat – fails. A person’s temperature can rise to a dangerous 106 degrees or higher within just 10 to 15 minutes. This can lead to disability or even death.

A person who has heatstroke may sweat profusely or not at all. They can become confused or pass out, and they could have a seizure.

How can we treat heat exhaustion?

  • Hydrate
  • Find shade
  • Take off layers
  • Use an ice pack under the neck, armpits, and the groin area

What about heatstroke? 

With heatstroke, you can have a temperature of 103 degrees or above, but a lot of us don’t have a thermometer around so if you notice the symptoms below, it's time to call 911.

  • Confusion
  • Red, hot, dry skin

As opposed to heat exhaustion when you’re sweating, you are not sweating anymore when you notice red, hot, and dry skin this is when you are not sweating. Call 911 if this happens.

RELATED: You can beat the heat, seniors!

What are some ways to keep cool?

  • Alter your pattern of outdoor exercise to take advantage of cooler times (early morning or late evening). If you can't change the time of your workout, scale it down by doing fewer minutes, walking instead of running, or decreasing your level of exertion
  • Go for a swim
  • Keep a wet towel and sunscreen in a cooler
  • Choose loose, lightweight, and breathable fabrics
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated
  • Avoid sugary or caffeinated beverages
  • Take advantage of opportunities to keep cool in your community- visit your local library, the Aquarium of the Americas, walk around an art gallery, and explore a fun museum.
  • Instead of hot foods, try lighter summer fare including frequent small meals or snacks containing cold fruit.

When to seek medical attention

Finally, use common sense. If the heat is intolerable, stay indoors when you can and avoid activities in direct sunlight or on hot asphalt surfaces. Pay special attention to the elderly, infants, and anyone with a chronic illness, as they may be dehydrated easily and more susceptible to heat-related illnesses.

Don’t forget that pets also need protection from dehydration and heat-related illnesses too.

If you think you may be experiencing a heat stroke, head to the nearest emergency room or call 911 immediately. 

Dr. Bonner specializes in Family Medicine at Touro. He attended Tulane University Medical School and completed his residency at Ochsner Clinic Foundation and is board-certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine.