Heat-related illnesses occur when your body temperature rises above normal but is unable to cool itself. While they are especially prevalent during the hot, summer months, they can happen at any time of year, especially during spring and fall when the weather is changing and we aren’t expecting it. Types of heat-related illnesses can vary in severity, but may include:
- Heat Edema – swelling of hands and feet.
- Heat Syncope – temporary loss of consciousness due to dehydration.
- Heat Cramps – painful contractions, commonly felt in the calves, thighs or shoulders, that occur as the body loses salt and water from exercise.
- Heat Exhaustion – is brought on by a loss of water and electrolytes. The body will begin to sweat excessively and the core body temperature will elevate to more than 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but less than 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Heat Stroke – the core body temperature is elevated to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit and confusion or an altered mental status may occur.
Heat-related illness can be very serious, progress from one type to another very quickly, and in some instances, lead to death. If someone is exhibiting symptoms of an illness, it’s important to call 911 and get them out of the heat as soon as possible. The longer treatment is delayed, the more long-term damage heat stroke can do. Medical professionals on site may use ice packs or cold-water immersion to cool the body quickly before taking them to the hospital for further treatment.
Fortunately, these are preventable illnesses. During the summer heat, take plenty of breaks to cool off, avoid constrictive clothing and keep hydrated with water and electrolytes if you’ll be outside for more than an hour. Both the temperature and humidity contribute to the overall heat of the day, and you should avoid exercising on days where the heat index is high. If you are sick, have a chronic medical condition, take stimulant medication or aren’t acclimated to the heat of a new environment, you may have a higher risk of developing heat-related illnesses. Individuals who have experienced symptoms of heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke should always be evaluated by a medical professional to establish proper treatment needs and whether it is safe to return to normal activity.
Dr. Michael Rigby is a family and sports medicine specialist at LeBauer HealthCare at Horse Pen Creek and a member of Cone Health Medical Group. Dr. Rigby completed medical school at West Virginia School of osteopathic medicine. He completed his residency at the Cone Health Family Medicine Teaching program and his fellowship at the Cone Heath Sports Medicine Fellowship program.