Hot weather raises potential for heat-related illnesses

July 27, 2020 | Debbie Gardner

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Hot days seem to be the norm this summer, with plenty of afternoons where the temperatures top out well into the 90s.

These conditions are more than just uncomfortable, they can present health issues for those without access to air conditioning, people who work and play in hot environments – more common now that dining, exercising, socializing and more are being done outside because of COVID-19 – and especially, very young children and elders.

According to Louise Cardellina, a physician’s assistant at American Family Care, which has offices in both Springfield and West Springfield, these extreme temperatures can put the vulnerable and the unaware in danger of experiencing hyperthermia – illnesses and conditions including heat stress, heat cramps, heat rash and the most serious condition, heat exhaustion – that are triggered by the body’s inability to regulate its internal temperature.

 “The body’s temperature is 98.6 degrees, and under normal circumstances it can keep that temperature regardless of the outside environment,” Cardellina explained, adding that in hot weather the normal way the body does this is by sweating – the evaporating water cools the skin – and by circulating blood closer to the surface of the skin to allow it to cool.

It’s an efficient system, but one that can be easily undone, especially by humid conditions that make the evaporation of sweat difficult. “You will see people who are sweating profusely, who are flushed and have an increased heart rate and increased respiration,” Cardellina said. “If this continues it can lead to hyperthermia, leading into heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

According to the CDC, symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, cold, clammy skin, a fast weak pulse, nausea, muscle cramps, dizziness and fainting. Heat stroke symptoms include a body temperature above 103 degrees, dry, hot skin, headache, confusion and passing out,

Cardellina noted the symptoms of heat illness can blend very quickly from one into the other, with dangerous consequences without immediate medical attention. “Heat stroke is when the body’s core temperature is over 104 degrees and the body is not able to bring it down,” she said. Dehydration exacerbates this problem as “once the body gets dehydrated, it doesn’t have water to sweat. You get abdominal pain, muscle cramps, confusion, and can lose consciousness.” If not treated at the onset of symptoms, heat illnesses can quickly progress from mild to “life threatening, and are not something to be taken lightly,” she emphasized.

Stay safe this summer

Cardellina said there are steps everyone ­– but especially the old and the young – should take to stay safe during hot and humid weather.

“When it’s hot and humid, those in the extreme age ranges, or on medication, should stay out of the sun and avoid strenuous activity,” she said, adding that if there is access to air conditioning, this is the time to use it. “Stay hydrated – drink lots of water. If you don’t have air conditioning, hopefully you have a fan. You can put cool compresses on yourself or take a cool shower or bath to cool off. Close the shades in the house to try and keep the heat down, and of course, don’t exert yourself.”

Cardellina stressed that individuals who regularly take medications, especially those on diuretics, beta-blockers or anti-seizure drugs, need to be even more cautious, as these drugs can make people more susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Even something as simple as high caffeine intake – too much coffee, too many cola drinks or even some cold medicines – can promote dehydration and exacerbate the effects of hot weather for these individuals. “You want to be extra careful,” she said “Gatoraid is fine, or water with electrolytes, or sports drinks without caffeine” are all good for staying hydrated in very hot weather.” These individuals, even more than most people, should take advantage of air conditioning when it is available, she said. “If you have it in your bedroom, just stay in the bedroom and close the door” to stay as cool as possible on extreme heat days.”

It’s also crucial to check on any elders in the family, or anyone who is or has been ill recently, when the temperature climbs. “Keep tabs, call and make sure they are OK. If there is any question that they might have heat exhaustion or heat stroke, get them to an emergency department right away,” Cardellina said.

The same advice holds for athletes and others who may be spending more time outdoors right now, she added. “Be out exercising a in the day, take breaks, and be sure you are drinking enough water,” Cardellina said. “Avoid being out at the high point of the day, if you can. And if there are any signs of heat stroke or heat

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