As summer heat and humidity begin to make an appearance in mid-Missouri, health experts from University of Missouri Health Care urge residents to take precautions to protect themselves.
“From dehydration to heat exhaustion to heat stroke, high temperatures and humidity levels can lead to serious illness and even the risk of death,” said Chadd Kraus, D.O., emergency room physician at MU Health Care and assistant professor of emergency medicine at the MU School of Medicine. “Heat-related illnesses can affect people quickly, often with only subtle warnings.”
While heat-related illnesses can affect anyone, children and older adults are especially at risk. For elderly people who live with health conditions such as cardiovascular and lung diseases, additional stress from heat and humidity can have deadly consequences.
“During the summer months, and especially during times of extremely high temperatures and humidity, it is very important to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses,” Kraus said. “Just as important is to understand what to do when you think you or someone around you is experiencing those symptoms.”
• Dehydration signs: Dry mouth, thirstiness, dry lips, fatigue, lightheadedness and headache. Treatment: Drink plenty of water. If you are sweating a lot, drink beverages that replace body salts and minerals lost through sweat, such as sports beverages. For very young children, drink hydration fluids designed specifically for salt and mineral replacement in kids.
• Heat exhaustion signs: Dizziness, lightheadedness, headache, nausea and profuse sweating. Treatment: Find an air-conditioned environment and rest. Take a cool bath and put on lightweight non-layered clothing.
• Heat stroke signs: Extremely high body temperature of 104 or 105 degrees Fahrenheit; hot, dry skin with no sweating; rapid pulse; confusion; and changes in mental status. Treatment: This is a serious medical emergency. When a person is so hot that they cannot drink enough fluids on their own, 911 must be called immediately for treatment at a hospital. Cooling these patients rapidly can be lifesaving.
Like the elderly, children can be especially at risk for heat-related illness.
“Children gain heat through their skin much faster than adults do, and hydration becomes even more important for them,” said George Koburov, M.D., assistant professor and chief of the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the MU School of Medicine and an emergency room physician at MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital. “It is important to remember that heat injury is always preventable. Being well hydrated before exposure to the heat is important, and then maintaining hydration with appropriate fluids and frequent cooling breaks during activity is vital.”
When the temperature is above 100 degrees Koburov recommends that kids age 11 or older drink a quart of cold water every hour. He also suggests parents monitor younger children’s thirst, sweating, urine output and urine color. A well-hydrated child usually has clear urine, while a dehydrated child has dark urine. Physical activity increases the risk significantly for heat related illness. Any significant physical activity should ideally be postponed or at the very least have frequent cooling breaks in the shade or air conditioning.
“For smaller children, I typically recommend that if it is too uncomfortable for the parents, then it is not a good idea for the kids to be outside, either,” Koburov said.
Koburov and Kraus offer these basic tips for everyone dealing with summer heat:
• Timing is everything: Consider exercising indoors. If that’s not an option, exercise or spend time outside during the morning or evening when it’s cooler.
• Watch humidity levels: High humidity doesn’t just feel hotter. Humidity makes it hard for your body to cool itself because sweat won’t evaporate.
• If you are in a building without air conditioning, open the windows for ventilation and use fans. Visit cool public places, such as libraries and stores that serve as community cooling stations.
• Wear loose-fitting non-layered clothing to allow your body’s sweat to evaporate, and wear lighter-colored clothes that absorb less heat.
• When outdoors, avoid direct sunlight, and stay in shade as much as possible.
• Take a cool bath, but don’t make it too cold. Room-temperature water will be cold enough to cool you when you are hot.
• Mist yourself with water, and combine this with a fan for more cooling effect.
“In addition to children and the elderly, those who take medications for psychiatric conditions should take special care when dealing with extreme heat,” Kraus said. “Psychiatric medications can make it difficult for the body to regulate its temperature, and high fever can develop from exposure to heat. Alcohol and drugs also can impair judgment and perception, making it difficult to recognize the danger signs of heat-related illness.”
“Above all, never leave a person or a pet in a motor vehicle during times of high temperatures and high humidity,” Koburov said. “Not even for a second. Motor vehicles are not insulated at all and lose the cool temperature from the air conditioning almost immediately. Combined with the fact that glass surrounds the passenger compartment, they turn into ovens within just a few minutes.”