The peak of summer is nearly here. The hottest summer temperatures for the St. Louis area tend to occur from July 16-20, according to 30-year averages calculated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In my 25 years as an emergency medicine physician, I’ve seen the catastrophic effect heat can have on health, and many of the people we see while providing event support in the National Disaster Medical System need treatment for heat-related illnesses. On average, heat-related illnesses cause more than 600 deaths every year, and from 2001 to 2010 more than 28,000 people were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses.
You can help keep yourself, your family and others around you out of the emergency department by watching for signs of heat stress.
People suffering from heat-related illnesses may experience heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale and clammy skin; fast, weak pulse; and nausea or vomiting. Early signs include muscle cramps, heat rash, and fainting or near-fainting spells. If you believe someone is suffering from a heat-related illness, they need to move to a cooler location and lie down; apply cool, wet cloths to the body; and sip non-alcoholic fluids. They should remain in the cool location until recovered.
Signs that someone might be suffering from the most severe heat-related illness — heat stroke — include a body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit; hot, red, dry or moist skin; rapid and strong pulse; and “altered mental status” that can range from confusion and agitation to possible unconsciousness. If you see someone exhibiting these signs, call 911 immediately; help the person move to a cooler environment; reduce the person’s body temperature with cool cloths soaked in ice water especially to head, neck, arm pits and upper legs near the groin area where combined 70 percent of body heat can be lost, or even a cool bath if you can stay with them to ensure they do not drown; and do not give them fluids.
Children are especially vulnerable to heat illnesses and can’t always tell us what is wrong. When it’s hot outside, consider any change in a child’s behavior as heat stress. Additionally, infants and children should never be left in a parked car, even if the windows are down.
To help prevent heat-related illness:
- Spend time in locations with air-conditioning.
- Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. Good choices are water and diluted sport drinks, unless told otherwise by your doctor.
- Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing
- Limit outdoor activity to morning and evening hours
- Protect yourself from the sun by wearing hats with brims and sunscreen
Heat-related illnesses are dangerous, but they are also preventable. Take some time to learn more about ways to beat the heat so that you, your family, and your community can have a safer, healthier summer. For more information about how to protect yourself, your family and your neighbors from extreme heat, visit http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/index.asp.
Author: Dr. Tim Davis is Chief Medical Officer, National Disaster Medical System, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services