Summer Heat Waves Raise Risk for Heatstroke… Are You Prepared?

As heat waves become more common and intense, the risk for heatstroke continues to rise. Here’s how to make sure you’re prepared.

Once again, record-breaking heat is bringing broiling conditions to many spots across the United States.

Since the notable 2011 heat wave — which was then the hottest in 75 years — North Americans have been suffering though increasingly warmer spring and summer weather. Experts continue to warn that these heat waves may become more regular and last longer in the future all over the United States.

What’s worse is that exposure to these extreme temperatures is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States. This not only includes heatstroke, but also problems associated with breathing difficulties and exacerbated preexisting medical conditions connected to global warming.

As sweltering summer heat waves become the norm, health experts are warning people about the importance of staying cool, particularly young children, the elderly, and others at greater risk for heatstroke and other problems associated with excessive heat exposure.

Depending on a person’s age, presence of chronic medical conditions, and the amount of fluids they’ve consumed, heatstroke — especially in temperatures in the triple digits — can occur in just a few short hours.

How to spot heatstroke warning signs (in yourself and others)

Heatstroke does have early warning signs. If you notice these signs quickly, it can help prevent more serious complications from developing.

“Heatstroke develops when the body is unable to effectively sweat to cool itself down,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “As core temperatures rapidly elevate, the skin becomes dry and your heart rate begins to elevate.”

Confusion is a common symptom in patients who develop heatstroke. This can even mimic a stroke. Other symptoms of heat exhaustion, the precursor to heatstroke, include:

  • muscle cramps
  • general weariness
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • feeling of passing out
  • nausea

“If you notice that you or a loved one have stopped sweating, this can be a late finding and should be taken seriously before neurological complications arise,” said Dr. Edgar Petras, an Indiana University Health resident physician in emergency medicine and pediatrics.

Severe symptoms indicating heatstroke include:

  • pale, red, or dry skin
  • confusion
  • trouble walking
  • dilated pupils
  • vomiting
  • inappropriate or uncharacteristic behavior
  • rapid or racing heart rate
  • rapid breathing
  • seizures
  • unconsciousness

If you or someone near you is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, seeking immediate medical attention could be a lifesaving action.

How to treat heatstroke and when to seek help

If the most serious symptoms occur — racing heart rate, confusion, seizures, or unconsciousness — medical experts recommend you seek immediate medical attention.

“This is a medical emergency, and it’s vital to seek treatment immediately in the emergency department by calling 911,” Glatter said. “A patient requires rapid cooling and attention to their airway and volume status to effectively resuscitate them.”

Emergency medical professionals can immediately begin treatment, which will include intravenous hydration and other methods.

When you or someone else begins to show signs of heatstroke, the first thing you should do is get them or yourself out of the heat.

“Move them to a cool or shady place out of sun,” advised Dr. Christopher Sampson, an emergency physician at University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia, Missouri. “If possible, get them to an air-conditioned building.”

Also, fanning the person while wetting their skin, whether by spritzing them with water or applying wet towels, will help. If ice packs are available, apply them to key areas, such as the groin, armpits, back and neck. (Cool towels, rags, or pieces of clothing will also work in a pinch.)

Depending on the severity of the heatstroke, recovery can take several days. Left untreated, experts say, heatstroke can cause lasting damage to your brain, muscles, kidneys, and other important organs.

But experts suggest it’s best to prevent heatstroke by being aware of not only the temperature but also what you’re putting into and excreting out of your body.

It’s important to drink plenty of cool fluids in the heat. Water is best, but Glatter also recommends low-sugar sports drinks, especially if you’re working in the heat or exercising for more than an hour. These drinks can replace electrolytes lost during excessive sweating.

If you must exercise during a heat wave, do it before sunrise when humidity is low.

“Don’t drink alcohol or sugary drinks in the heat since this leads to dehydration due to excessive water loss,” he said.

For the elderly, homeless, and other people who may not have access to air-conditioning, some cities open up cooling stations.

“Make sure to check on seniors to see how they’re feeling. Make sure they have access to air-conditioning and plenty of cool fluids,” Glatter said. “It’s also vital to have a heat response plan to help reduce the chance of heatstroke developing in the first place.”

How heatstroke affects seniors and children differently

Children and seniors have many things in common when it comes to their susceptibility to heatstroke. This includes their ability to regulate their own body temperature and their dependence on others for care.

That can include something as simple as making sure they stay hydrated.

Glatter said part of the reason children don’t regulate their own body temperature as well as adults is due their higher ratio of surface area to body mass.

In other words, they don’t have enough meat on their bones yet.

He added, “Children also may not take in adequate amounts of fluid in the hot weather, making them more prone to dehydration which can progress to heatstroke.”

Sampson says parents should be hyperaware when children are outside during heat waves.

“Infants and young children are at risk because they need someone to watch out for them,” he says. “Children are also at extreme risk when they’re left in a hot car. Even leaving the windows open is not enough.”

You may have seen the videos of people baking cookies on the dashboards of their cars. While some places don’t necessarily get that hot, the temperatures outside can still turn cars into an oven. For example, a car sitting in 70°F (21°C) heat can get up to 90 to 100°F in as little as a half hour.

“When it’s 90 degrees outside, the interior can heat up to 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in 30 minutes and be lethal in that short time frame,” Glatter said.

Similar to children, older people are just as susceptible to overheating and developing heatstroke. This includes the elderly who live without fans or air-conditioning units to properly cool their homes.

As we age, our bodies lose their ability to regulate our internal body temperature, similar to small children. Seniors are also more likely to have other medical conditions.

“They’re also more likely to be taking medications that can affect their ability to tolerate high temperatures or sweat,” Sampson said. “Some medications also cause them to urinate more which puts them at risk for dehydration.”

But the increased risk for heatstroke doesn’t stop with the young and the old. People exposed to heat for long periods of time, especially those without adequate skin protection or who are working or exercising outside, can also develop heatstroke.

Also, people with chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease are at higher risk for heat-related conditions.

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