Column: Now is the time to look at heat related illness

Published 7:59 am Thursday, June 30, 2005

By Staff
At my age, on these hot summer days I should probably be lounging at pool side sucking on pink gins but I'm not ready for couch potatodom. I prefer studying rare butterflies in Godforsaken swamps and fighting forest fires. For self preservation I have learned about heat related illnesses and you should to. It just might save yours or a loved ones life. There are three forms of heat illness, cramps, heat exhaustion and, the most deadly, heat stroke. It's a common misconception that these occur in succession, first cramps, then heat exhaustion advancing into heat stroke. Not so. They can occur independently.
Heat cramps are sudden, severe cramps usually occurring in the hands, calves and feet. I've experienced these several times while mountain hiking and it ain't fun. They're caused by loss of water and minerals such as salt, potassium and magnesium from excessive sweating. If you experience these cramps get out of the heat, rest and drink lots of water. Sports drinks like Gatorade help replace the minerals. Massaging or applying firm pressure to the offending muscles may alleviate the pain.
Heat exhaustion is also a product of working your tail off on a hot day and losing large amounts of water and salt through sweating. Typically you will be drenched in sweat yet have cold, clammy skin. In addition, blood rushes to the surface of the skin to try and cool the poor ol' bod down. This reduces blood flow to the brain, muscles and internal organs which in turn affects your physical and mental capacity. Symptoms are varying combinations of fatigue, nausea, headache, excessive thirst, cramps, weakness, slow or weak heartbeat, dizziness or fainting. You may experience confusion, anxiety or agitation.
Heat exhaustion itself is not life threatening but could be a precursor of heat stroke and requires immediate attention. Get out of the heat a.s.a.p. and lie down with your legs elevated slightly above head level. Wet your clothes down with water to speed cooling. Replace fluids and salt with salty sport drinks, salty tomato juice or plain salted water - one teaspoon per quart. Those of you with bad tickers on low sodium diets that are cringing at all this salt should know better than to be out there to begin with. If symptoms don't soon subside, call for emergency help pronto.
Heat stroke is serious and can lead to permanent brain damage and death. This is not so much a product of physical activity, but from long exposure to heat, like hours in the factory or at the beach. It can come on suddenly with no sign of cramping or heat exhaustion. The body loses its ability to cool itself and the part of our brain that regulates temperature goes on break. We lose our ability to sweat, which is the body's air conditioner. One of the defining symptoms is a sharp decrease in sweating with hot, flushed, dry skin. Other symptoms are combinations of very rapid or slow heartbeat, an increase in body temperature (104 degrees and up), nausea and vomiting, confusion, anxiety or fainting and convulsions. Immediately call for an ambulance. Do not give fluids. Get out of the heat, strip the victim's clothing and lie him down with legs elevated. Sponge with cool water and fan air over him. If possible, place ice packs on the groin, neck and underarms.
Of course, it's best to circumvent any of this you can. If you're an alcoholic, obese, have heart problems, take antihistamines or do cocaine hot days are not for you. I take daily multi-vitamins heavy in minerals to ensure I'm well stoked with good stuff to start with. While in the field I munch on power bars (not to be confused with diet bars) that contain large amounts of potassium, magnesium and other good stuff – read the labels! Pace yourself and chug lots of water. At the end of the day I refuel with a big jug of sports drink. You have to be careful with this stuff during the day, though. It makes you feel fine even though you're badly dehydrated, which can leave you wide open for serious problems. Happy sweatin' and, most of all, carpe diem.