News & Events

Avoid heat-related illness this summer

July 25, 2012

It's finally here, the summer weather we longed for during the dead of winter. While we may love basking in the heat, too much exposure to extreme temperatures can produce disastrous and sometimes deadly results.

Heat-related illnesses are a result of an individual's inability to regulate his or her body temperature in hot weather. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are among the most common. Individuals at greatest risk of developing heat exhaustion or heat stroke include infants and children up to 4 years old, people 65 and older, and individuals who over-exert during work or exercise, are overweight, ill or on certain medications.

Heat exhaustion may occur after an individual has developed dehydration (a loss of electrolytes due to excessive perspiration and insufficient fluid intake) and to being exposed to high temperatures for several continuous days. Heat exhaustion is also associated with a high heat index, a measurement of how hot we feel when humidity levels and air temperature are combined.

There are two main causes of heat exhaustion: water depletion, which may cause an individual to have excessive thirst, weakness, headache or loss of consciousness, and salt depletion, in which an individual may experience vomiting, frequent muscle cramps or dizziness.

The most common signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include confusion, dark-colored urine (an indication of dehydration), dizziness, fainting, fatigue, headache, muscle cramps, nausea, pale skin, excessive sweating and a rapid heartbeat.

If an individual is suffering from heat exhaustion, it is vital to get him or her out of the heat immediately. Other recommended treatments include having the individual drink plenty of non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic beverages, removing tight or unnecessary clothing, taking a cool shower or bath and using fans or ice towels to cool down the body.

If the individual is still suffering after 30 minutes, contact a doctor as untreated heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which may damage the brain and other vital organs, and in some cases, cause death.

Heat stroke is a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures. Dehydration may also be a contributing factor. Heat stroke causes an individual's body temperature controlling system to fail. It commonly affects infants and children up to age 4, adults over age 65 and individuals with chronic health conditions, but may also cause problems among healthy young athletes. Other groups at risk include people of any age who don't drink enough water and people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

The most characteristic symptom of heat stroke is a core body temperature above 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Other symptoms include throbbing headache; dizziness and light-headedness; lack of sweating despite the heat; red, hot and dry skin; muscle weakness or cramps; nausea and vomiting; rapid heartbeat, which may be either strong or weak; rapid, shallow breathing; confusion; disorientation; staggering; seizures; and unconsciousness.

If an individual is suffering from heat stroke, immediately call 911 or transport him or her to a hospital. As with heat exhaustion, move the individual to an air-conditioned environment or a cool, shady area and remove any unnecessary clothing. Focus your attention on cooling down his or her body temperature.

This can be accomplished by fanning air over the patient while wetting his or her skin with water or by applying ice packs to armpits, groin, neck and back areas. If it is possible, immerse the patient in a shower or tub of cool ice water. offers the following tips for staying cool during the summer:

-Alter your pattern of outdoor exercise to take advantage of cooler times.

-Wear loose-fitting clothing, preferably of a light color. Cotton clothing will keep you cooler than many synthetics. Also protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

-Avoid sunburn. Stay in the shade and use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

-Keep your home cool.

-Fill a spray bottle with water and keep it in the refrigerator for a quick refreshing spray to your face after being outdoors.

-Fans can help circulate air and make you feel cooler even in an air-conditioned house. Applying cool water mist or wet towels before sitting in front of a fan is a quick way to cool off.

-Try storing lotions or cosmetic toners in the refrigerator to use on hot, overtired feet.

-Keep plastic bottles of water in the freezer; grab one when you're ready to go outside. As the ice melts, you'll have a supply of cold water with you.

-Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as these will promote dehydration. Drink cool, non-alcoholic beverages.

-Try lighter, more frequent small meals or snacks containing cold fruit or low-fat dairy products.

-If you don't have air conditioning, arrange to spend parts of the day in a shopping mall, public library, movie theater or other public space that is cool.

-Use public water parks, pools or take a cool bath or shower.

-If the heat is intolerable, stay indoors when you can and avoid activities in direct sunlight or on hot asphalt surfaces.

-Check on family, friends and neighbors who do not have air conditioning and who spend much of their time alone.

-Pets need protection from dehydration and heat-related illnesses, too.

-Never leave children or pets alone in a parked car.

Dr. Kelly Tomasic is a family physician with Alliance Community Medical Foundation LLC.

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