Tips on how to cope with heat-related illness

By Kelsey Guthmiller, Trauma Program Manager at Riverwood Healthcare Center

Heat-related illnesses can occur rapidly during hot summer days and be life-threatening in some cases. Learn the symptoms and what to do if you or a loved one shows signs of having a heat-related illness.

People suffer from heat illness when their bodies are not able to get rid of excess heat and properly cool. The body loses its “heat balance” because it cannot shed heat at a fast enough rate. When the body starts to overheat, the blood vessels get bigger and the heart beats faster and harder.

The physiological strain on the body from heat illness may cause the person to become dehydrated, weak, tired, and confused. As dehydration gets worse the body can no longer keep its temperature within the normal range, sweating stops and severe heat illness occurs.

Here is an overview of five specific heat-related illnesses, their symptoms and what to do for first aid or getting medical care.

Heat stroke: Heat stroke is a condition caused by the body overheating, usually as a result of prolonged exposure to or physical exertion in high temperatures. Symptoms include high body temperature (103°F or higher); hot, red, dry, or damp skin; fast, strong pulse; headache; dizziness; nausea; confusion; slurred speech; and losing consciousness.

What to do:  Call 9-1-1 right away; heat stroke is a medical emergency. Move the person to a cooler place. Help lower the person’s temperature with cool cloths or a cool bath. Do not give the person anything to drink.

Untreated heat stroke can quickly damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. The damage worsens the longer treatment is delayed, increasing the risk of serious complications or death.

Heat exhaustion: Exposure to extreme heat can cause a person to lose minerals and fluids. Symptoms include heavy sweating; cold, pale, and clammy skin; fast, weak pulse; nausea or vomiting; muscle cramps; tiredness or weakness; dizziness; headache; and fainting or passing out.

What to do:  Move to a cool place. Loosen your clothes. Put cool, wet cloths on your body or take a cool bath. Sip water. Get medical help right away if the person is vomiting, symptoms get worse, or symptoms last longer than one hour.

Heat cramps: The loss of body fluids and minerals can cause painful heat cramps, which typically affect people who work outside. Symptoms include heavy sweating during intense exercise and muscle pain or spasms.

What to do:  Stop physical activity and move to a cool place. Drink water or a sports drink. Wait for cramps to go away before you do any more physical activity. Get medical help right away if cramps last longer than one hour, you’re on a low-sodium diet, or you have heart problems.

Severe sunburn: Symptoms include painful, red, and warm skin, and blisters on the skin.

What to do:  Stay out of the sun until your sunburn heals. Put cool cloths on sunburned areas or take a cool bath. Put moisturizing lotion on sunburned areas. Do not break blisters.

Heat rash: Symptoms include red clusters of small blisters that look like pimples on the skin (usually on the neck, chest, groin, or in elbow creases).

What to do:  Stay in a cool, dry place. Keep the rash dry. Use powder (like baby powder) to soothe the rash.

“At Riverwood Healthcare Center, our highly trained emergency department team is ready to treat patients with urgent injuries or illness 24 hours a day,” said Dr. David Taylor, chief medical officer and emergency medicine physician. “Don’t ever hesitate to call 9-1-1 for any medical emergencies. Have fun in the sun this summer but take care to avoid injuries or illness.”