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July 18, 2006 > Be Cool: Avoid Heatstroke

Be Cool: Avoid Heatstroke

by Washington Hospital

The summer heat can be a welcome change from a long, cold and rainy winter. But too much heat and sun can put you at risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke. On hot days, whether you are recreating under the sun’s rays or trying to ride out the season indoors, it is important to be aware of the signs, symptoms and treatment of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

“The people most at risk for heatstroke and heat exhaustion are the elderly, poor or socially isolated people who need help and the chronically ill,” says Dr. David Orenberg, Medical Director of Emergency Services at Washington Hospital.

Common causes of heatstroke and heat exhaustion include:

  • High temperatures or humidity

  • Dehydration

  • Prolonged or excessive exercise

  • Excess clothing

  • Alcohol use

  • Medications

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Sweat gland dysfunction

Heatstroke is the complete breakdown of the body’s regulation of heat. It most commonly occurs toward the end of the summer heat period when there are temperatures over 100 degrees for several days. Symptoms of heatstroke can include unconsciousness, very high fever, bizarre behavior, hallucinations and altered consciousness. Sweating may or may not be a symptom.

“Heatstroke can strike very quickly and it is a medical emergency,” Dr. Orenberg warns. A person exhibiting signs of heatstroke should be taken to the hospital. Call 911 for emergency care, and while waiting for care to arrive you should perform First-Aid:

  • If the person is not breathing and has no pulse, do CPR.

  • If the person is not breathing but does have a pulse, do rescue breathing – also known as “mouth to mouth resuscitation”

  • Move the person to a cool place indoors or in the shade to help lower the body temperature.

  • Place the feet higher than the head.

  • Cool the body by removing clothing and spray the person with cool water or wrap the person in cold, wet towel or sheets.

  • Fan the person.

  • Put ice packs or cold compresses to the neck, under the armpits and to the groin area.

There are two forms of heatstroke, non-exertion heatstroke or exertion heatstroke. Non-exertion heatstroke can occur when someone lives in a home with no air conditioning while the temperatures outside are rising. Older people in particular are susceptible to non-exertion heatstroke in this type of scenario.

“It is important on hot days to leave the house and go to an air-conditioned environment, like a shopping mall, restaurant or other public space,” Dr. Orenberg says. “Even a couple of hours away from the extreme heat can cut the risk of heatstroke.”

Exercising in high heat or doing physical labor can lead to exertion heatstroke. Unless you are accustomed to working out in temperatures over 85 degrees, it is safer to exercise or do physical exertion during the cooler mornings, or in an air-conditioned environment or wait until the heat wave passes.

Certain people, especially the elderly, can be more susceptible to heatstroke due to drugs they may take for cardiovascular reasons. Some anti-depressants and diuretics cans also make a person more at risk for heatstroke. If you use cocaine or amphetamines, you are putting yourself at higher risk for heatstroke.

Dr. Orenberg explains that on extremely hot days, younger people may be more likely to get heat exhaustion rather than heatstroke. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, weakness, lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, headaches, muscle cramps, sweating and possibly passing out.

If you believe you have heat exhaustion, don’t ignore the symptoms. Heat exhaustion could lead to heat stroke. At the first sign of heat exhaustion, go to a cool place and start drinking fluids before you body temperature continues to rise. It is important to replenish fluids and electrolytes with a drink like Gatorade or Pedialyte. Take off extra clothing to bring the body temperature down. If symptoms continue, go to the hospital.

Do not underestimate the seriousness of a heat exhaustion or heatstroke, especially if the person is a child, elderly or injured. During the hot summer weather, you can work to prevent heatstroke and heat exhaustion:

  • Drink lots of fluids, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Drink water or sports drinks like Gatorade, All Sport and PowerAde. Drink more fluids before, during or after physical activity.

  • Avoid drinks that can lead to dehydration such as alcohol, tea, coffee, soda and other drinks with caffeine.

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing. Wear a hat and sunglasses outside or use a sun umbrella when you are in the sun.

  • Spray your body with water to stay cool.

  • Restrain from working outside in the sun if you’re not used to exerting yourself in high temperatures.

  • Open a window; turn on a fan or the air conditioner.

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