There’s no doubt about it. Summer is my favorite season. Even with the humidity and high temperatures we get here in my little corner of Michigan, I love it! But the dangers of the dog days of summer can’t be ignored. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke send thousands of people to the hospital every summer in the U.S. and many people die from heat-related illnesses each year.
There are three heat-related syndromes; heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Heat cramps are painful, involuntary muscle spasms that usually occur during heavy exercise in hot environments. Muscles most often affected include those of calves, arms, abdominal wall and back, although heat cramps may involve any muscle group involved in exercise. The spasms may be more intense and more prolonged than are typical nighttime leg cramps. Fluid and electrolyte loss often contribute to heat cramps.
Treating heat cramps is relatively simple. Rest briefly to cool down. Drink clear juice (apple, for example) or an electrolyte-containing sports drink. Do gentle, range of motion stretching and gently massage the muscle group that is affected. Do not resume strenuous activity for at least a few hours after the heat cramps abate. If the heat cramps don’t go away within approximately an hour, call your doctor.
Heat exhaustion is a condition whose symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse. This is a result of your body overheating. Causes of heat exhaustion include exposure to high temperatures, particularly when combined with high humidity, and strenuous physical activity. Without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition.
The symptoms of heat exhaustion include cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat. Heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, and fatigue are present. A weak rapid pulse and low blood pressure upon standing, muscle cramps, nausea, and headache are also symptoms.
If you think you have heat exhaustion immediately stop all activity. Move to a cool place and drink water or sports drinks. Call your doctor immediately if you do not feel relief from symptoms in approximately one hour or if you have a fever of 104°F (40°C).
Left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition. If you feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion move to a cool area, rest on your back with your legs higher than your heart, and drink cool, non-alcoholic liquids. Take a cool shower or bath or put towels soaked in cool water on your body. Loosen or remove clothing to improve air flow on your skin.
Heatstroke occurs when your body temperature reaches 104 F (40 C) or higher. Heatstroke requires immediate medical attention! Untreated heatstroke can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. The longer treatment is delayed the more the damage worsens. This increases the risk of serious complications or death.
The symptoms of heatstroke include:
- A body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher is the main sign of heatstroke.
- Confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium, seizures and coma can all result from heatstroke. Look for signs of altered mental state or altered behavior in anyone you suspect may be suffering from heatstroke.
- In heatstroke brought on by hot weather, skin will feel hot and dry to the touch. However, in heatstroke brought on by strenuous exercise, skin may feel moist.
- The affected person may feel sick to his stomach or vomit.
- Skin may turn red as body temperature increases.
- Breathing may become rapid and shallow.
- The pulse may increase significantly. Heat stress puts a tremendous burden on the heart as it tries to help cool the body.
- The affected person may complain of a throbbing headache.
If you suspect heatstroke it is vital to move the affected person to a cool area. Remove all excess clothing and cool the person by whatever means necessary. Put him in a cool tub, shower, or spray with cold water from a hose. Place ice packs on the neck, head, armpits, and groin to lower the person’s temperature.
The causes of heat-related illnesses are:
- Exposure to a hot environment. This can be outdoors or in an enclosed space; even your home.
- Strenuous activity during periods of hot weather.
- Dehydration can also lead to these illnesses.
- Wearing excessive clothing which prevents sweat from evaporating (When our boys were young we went out to have them ride their ponies one summer afternoon. Our oldest was in the saddle when I noticed he had turned white and didn’t look well at all. I caught him as he fainted right out of the saddle. I carried him back to the house and discovered that he had worn an undershirt, a pocket t-shirt, and a flannel shirt on a day that was in the high 80’s. We were able to cool him quickly and avoid serious complications but we had a serious talk with him about proper “cowboy” attire in mid-summer.)
- Drinking alcohol affects your body’s ability to regulate temperature. It’s best to avoid it if you will be in very hot temperatures.
The dog days of summer can be enjoyed if you take the proper precautions. And remember, winter is just a few weeks away.