As I write this, I am enjoying the warm weather that Florida’s springtime offers. I love the heat. Having grown up in Pennsylvania and shoveled my fair share of snow, I vowed when moving to Florida that I would never complain about the heat.
But could heat be dangerous? The answer is yes.
Excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States from 1979 to 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More Americans died during that time from extreme heat than from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, lightning strikes and earthquakes combined.
Prevention is the key to heat-related emergencies. You know the old saying: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. With heat-related emergencies, think in terms of ounces, as in ounces of water. Not alcohol, coffee, tea or soda; these dehydrate you. Think and drink water.
When working or playing outdoors in the heat, drink a lot of cool water. Make certain you break often for more cool water. Notice I said cool, not, cold, because cold drinks may cause stomach cramps if your body temperature is elevated.
Many things can cause a heat-related emergency, starting with high temperatures and high humidity. Those two affect the body’s ability to cool itself. When the humidity is high, your sweat will not evaporate quickly, preventing the body from releasing its heat quickly.
Other factors that play into heat-related emergencies are a person’s age, weight (obesity), fever, dehydration, heart disease, poor circulation and sunburn. Prescription drug and alcohol use can also affect our body’s ability to cool itself. And yes, a hard night of drinking can increase your risk of suffering from the heat.
Here are three common heat-related emergencies and how to help someone suffering from them.
1. Heat cramps. Heat cramps generally occur when we sweat a lot, depleting the body’s salt and moisture. They are muscle pains or spasms usually felt in the arms, abdomen or legs. If you experience heat cramps, stop what you are doing, sit down in a cool place, and drink clear juice or Gatorade. Give your body a few hours rest before returning to work. Seek medical attention if the symptoms are severe or do not go away in an hour.
2. Heat exhaustion. Like heat cramps, heat exhaustion is caused by exposure to high temperatures and lack of fluids. In addition to muscle cramps, other warning signs include heavy sweating, paleness, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. If left untreated, heat exhaustion may lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal.
If you suspect heat exhaustion, cool off. If the victim has heart problems or high blood pressure, or if the symptoms worsen or last longer than 1 hour, seek medical attention immediately.
3. Heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most dangerous type of heat-related emergency as it can cause death or permanent disability. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. It is possible for the body temperature to reach 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes.
Warning signs for heat stroke vary but may include an extremely high body temperature, hot and dry skin (no sweating), rapid and strong pulse, a throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and unconsciousness.
If you see any of these signs, you may be dealing with a life-threatening emergency. Call for immediate medical assistance, get the victim out of the sun and cool the victim rapidly by placing the person in a cool shower or spraying the victim with cool water from a hose.
If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call or radio for further instructions, which may include giving the patient oxygen. Lastly, if there is vomiting, make sure the airway remains open by turning the victim on their side in the recovery position.
When working with children in the heat, consider ways to make drinking water fun. Think of a way to encourage them to take water breaks, making certain they drink water throughout the day.
Remember, it is much easier to prevent these heat related emergencies than it is to treat them. Drink plenty of water and look for the early warning signs.
Keith Murray, a former firefighter EMT, owns The CPR School, a first-aid training company. He provides onboard training for yacht captains and crew and sells and services AEDs. Contact him at 877-6-AED-CPR, 877-623-3277 or www.TheCPRSchool.com. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.