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Cool Off: Heat Exhaustion

Summer Safety Series

Summer is a great time of year to be outdoors. The kids are out of school with lots of free time to explore – whether it’s hiking, spending a day at the park, swimming or doing some other type of athletic activity. However, there are certain things you should always keep in mind to make the most out of your fun in the sun and to ensure you and your loved ones stay safe.

Welcome to UNM Health’s Summer Safety Series. As you enjoy the summer weather, be sure to stay cool. Our second entry in UNM Health’s Summer Safety Series covers avoiding heat-related illnesses.

Cool Off

Avoid heat-related illnesses by taking it easy outdoors and drinking plenty of cool liquids.

By Terry Kelly

It has been scorching hot in New Mexico lately. Temperatures have surpassed 100 degrees all over the state for multiple days in a row.

Tips For Staying Cool

Here are some tips on how to stay cool and prevent heat illnesses from occurring:

  • Stay hydrated and bring plenty of cool liquids (water is best) whenever you will be spending an extended period outdoors.
  • Limit the time you spend outside, especially if you are being active.
  • Wear light clothing.
  • Be smart. If you feel yourself getting overheated, rest in a shady spot. Take plenty of breaks and don’t exert yourself as much as you normally would.
  • Drew Harrell, MD, recommends visiting the Center for Disease Control website for more information.

However, if you are forced to be outdoors, Robert Rimorin, the athletic trainer for the UNM baseball team, says staying hydrated and drinking plenty of cool fluids can help you to avoid the two main types of heat-related illnesses, which are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. These illnesses occur as the result of a combination of dehydration and the body overheating.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • An increased body temperature of about 101 degrees

“The first way people can prevent heat exhaustion is to stay hydrated,” Rimorin says. “It will help keep you, your tissues and your organs cool.”

It’s still possible for you to get heat exhaustion despite drinking fluids, Rimorin adds, because your body can still overheat.

Harrell says you need to pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you.

“Heat exhaustion is your body’s way of saying, ‘Hey, take a break. Get some place cool. Get out of the heat. Take off your extra clothes and rest to let your body cool down and get your heart rate back to normal.’ If you pay attention to those symptoms, you normally don’t progress and you fix your heat exhaustion,” Harrell says.

Cramps are an early sign that you might be pushing yourself too hard and to reign in your physical activity.

“You’re expending more electrolytes than you are taking in,” Rimorin explains. “Most people, although not everyone, will get cramps before progressing to (heat exhaustion or heat stroke). People suffering from heat exhaustion are still functioning, but their body is definitely overheated and we need to get them into a shady area and cool them down.”

If left untreated, heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke, which is a medical emergency and needs immediate care. A person can suffer from heat stroke if the body’s temperature doesn’t cool sufficiently. Heat stroke can even strike people who are not active, especially in the very young and elderly.

“If you don’t pay attention to the warning signs, or if you try to treat it and you’re still not better after an hour, then it is a medical emergency because your body is losing its ability to regulate its own temperature,” says Harrell.

“People will progress from being a little confused, weak with some muscle cramps and a fast heart rate to being profoundly confused – including and up to being unconscious and maybe even seizing – and losing their ability to sweat because the body has burned through its ability to regulate its temperature. Because of this, their temperature will go up very quickly and very high. We’re talking 103 (degrees) to upwards of 106 or 107.”

People suffering from heat stroke might:

“The important visual reminder of how important heat stroke is how you are cooking yourself from the inside at that point,” Harrell says. “Once your temperature gets above 103, or 106, 107, then your body’s tissues, cells and muscles actually start to cook and break down just like if you put a roast in the oven. The single most important thing about someone with heat stroke is they need to be out of the heat and cool as fast as you can make them.”

Someone suffering from heat stroke needs:

  • Emergency medical help. Call 911 IMMEDIATELY. “You need to call 911 because this is like a (heart attack). It is a true medical emergency,” says Harrell.
  • A shady area or cool building. “If you can’t get them into air conditioning, get them into shade and out of the direct sun while you wait for the paramedics to arrive,” Harrell says.
  • Cooling by any means necessary. Good methods of cooling include:
    • Dousing them with water from a fountain, garden hose, etc. “Water is best. It doesn’t even have to be cold water, although that is preferable,” he says.
    • Placing ice packs around the neck, armpit and groin where large blood vessels are close to the skin, which will help the body cool faster.
    • An ice bath or a very cold shower or bath.
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