A common topic of conversation around the water cooler – and elsewhere – this year has been how unusual the weather has been, particularly in terms of heat. It’s been hotter and muggier this year than many of us remember. In July alone, California’s coastal areas were hit with two heat waves that prompted Scientific American to attempt to explain, “Why California’s July Heat Wave Is So Weird.”
Weirdness aside, the result means people – from the very young to the very old and workers who must toil under the blazing sun and the firefighters trying to squelch the fires ranging around our state and beyond – are suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Drinking lots of fluids, wearing appropriate clothing and exercising in the cooler parts of the day may help. But knowing the symptoms of heat illness and what to do can be a matter of life and death.
Mayo Clinic’s website notes that sweating is the main way the body cools itself. As sweat evaporates, it regulates body temperature. But when “you exercise strenuously or otherwise overexert yourself in hot, humid weather, your body is less able to cool itself efficiently.”
In an effort to make people – particularly employers – aware of the danger zones, the federal office of Occupational Health and Safety established a “Heat Index” that measures a combination of air temperature and humidity. It sets the lowest risk at under 90 degrees; the “very high and extreme” risk occurs above 115 degrees. As part of its safety campaign the agency developed a mobile app so people can find the heat index where they are and what to do lower their risk. Their principles of safety – “Water. Rest. Shade.” – apply to any situation where there’s hot weather, although some different tips come into play depending on the age and severity the individual is affected.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two types of heat illness. The less serious, but still threatening, is heat exhaustion, which can hit workers, kids playing in the sun who have more body surface per pound of weight, young athletes on the field or seniors at home without air conditioning. If you are with someone who is feeling dizzy or faint, sweating heavily, has a weak, rapid pulse, nausea, headache and/or cramping, there’s a strong likelihood that heat exhaustion has set in. In heat exhaustion, body temperature is below 104 degrees. This situation calls for ceasing activity, removing heavy clothing (and sports gear), resting in a cool place, and drinking cool water or sports drinks. But stay away from sugary juices or sodas high in carbohydrates. In some cases, it may be necessary to call for medical assistance. If in doubt, don’t hesitate.
But if you’re seeing symptoms such as extremely high body temperature – over 104 degrees – or fainting, chances are high that the individual is suffering from the more severe and potentially fatal heat stroke. Other symptoms include red and hot dry skin, confusion or convulsions and shortness of breath. Heat stroke can damage the brain and other organs – and can occur without heat exhaustion occurring first.
This is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately and start first aid measures including moving the person, if possible, to an air-conditioned space or at least into the shade. Try to cool the person by spraying the skin and fanning them as much as you can. Apply ice packs to the armpits, neck, groin and back. If available, you can put the person into a cool shower or tub. But WebMD recommends avoiding ice with “older patients and young children, patients with chronic illness or anyone whose heat stroke occurred without vigorous exercise.”
Awareness of the symptoms and ability to provide first aid may save a life. Keep that OSHA slogan – Water, Rest, Shade – in mind and share it with others if you’re feeling the heat.