Warmer temperatures and longer days give us more opportunities to be outside enjoying ourselves. As the temperatures rise and the humidity soars, you may start hearing talk about the “heat index.” A heat index tells the temperature your body feels when the actual air temperature is combined with the relative humidity. This means that if the temperature outside is 90º F, and the humidity is 70 percent, then it feels like 105 º F. If you’re directly in the sun, the heat index might be as much as 15 degrees higher.
The combination of heat and humidity makes it harder for your body to cool itself by giving off heat. As a result, your body’s internal temperature will rise, and heat-related illnesses might result. Older adults, young children, and those who are sick or overweight are most likely to develop problems due to heat, but anyone can have a heat-related illness.
Amin Valliani, MD, MPH, board-certified internal medicine specialist on staff at Des Peres Hospital, reviewed the stages and warning signs of heat-related ilnesses.
Stages of Heat Illnesses
"For most people, there are warning signs that the heat is beginning to affect you," said Dr. Valliani. "The first signs may be muscle cramps in your stomach, arms or legs. You may notice swelling in your feet, legs and ankles. Another earlywarning sign may be dizziness or feeling faint. People taking certain medications including beta-blockers may be more prone to heat-related dizziness."
If you notice these early signs of heat illnesses, here are some steps Dr. Valliani recommends taking:
- Stop any physical activity and move to a cooler, shady area.
- Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid drinks containing alcohol or caffeine.
- Put your legs up if you notice swelling or feel dizzy.
If these measures don’t work, contact your doctor.
Heat exhaustion is the second stage of heat illness. This means that your body can’t keep itself cool. "Symptoms may include thirst, dizziness, weakness, lack of coordination, nausea and profuse sweating," said Valliani. "Your body temperature will be normal, but your skin will feel cold and clammy. If you start feeling the signs of heat exhaustion, follow the steps listed above. If you don’t start feeling better soon, you should seek emergency medical care."
The final stage is heat stroke, which requires immediate emergency care. This is a life-threatening illness where your body can’t regulate its temperature by sweating. If this occurs, your temperature rises so high that brain damage or death may occur. During heat stroke, your internal temperature may reach 106 º F within 10 to 15 minutes. The warning signs of heat stroke include:
- Body temperature of 103 º F or more
- Skin that is red, hot and dry
- Lack of sweating
- Throbbing headache
- Mental confusion
"Remember that if you see the signs of heat stroke, this is a life-threatening emergency," said Valliani. "Anyone with these symptoms should be taken immediately to the closest emergency facility. Call 9-1-1 for emergency assistance and start trying to cool the person until help arrives."
Prevention Is Best
You can prevent most problems with heat illnesses:
- If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, consider getting a small, window unit to cool one room so that you have a cool place to rest during extreme heat. Use fans to circulate the air.
- Stay indoors during the heat of the day and limit your exposure to the sun. There are many public buildings like libraries, malls and movie theaters where you can go during the heat of the day. During days of extreme heat, many towns will open special cooling shelters for people to use.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially those that don’t contain alcohol or caffeine.
- Eat light, well-balanced meals.
- Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing. Lighter colors will help reflect heat and keep you cooler. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face and neck.
- Most importantly, avoid strenuous activities such as exercise, working in the yard during the middle of the day.