Fitness Facts: The heat is on
By Connie Colbert
GCU Director of Health Services
It’s heating up in Arizona, so now is a good time to discuss what heat-related illness looks like and what you can do to prevent and treat it.
The body normally cools itself by sweating, but when temperatures and humidity are high and sweat does not evaporate quickly, body temperature can rise rapidly. Extremely high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.
Other factors that increase risk include age, weight, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn and prescription drug and alcohol use.
According to Arizona Department of Health Services, more than 2,000 people in the state died from excessive exposure to heat from 2009 to 2019.
Below are the stages of heat-related illness and the symptoms:
Thirst: By the time your body tells you that you are thirsty, you are already mildly dehydrated.
Heat exhaustion is a relatively mild form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate hydration. Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to an excessive loss of the water and salt contained in sweat.
Warning signs of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Muscle cramps
- Nausea or vomiting
- Fainting and weakness
- Skin may be cool, moist and pale.
- Pulse will be fast and weak.
- Breathing will be fast and shallow.
If heat exhaustion is untreated, it may progress to heat stroke. Seek medical attention immediately if symptoms are severe or if the person has heart problems or high blood pressure.
Otherwise, help the person to cool off, and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or last longer than one hour.
Cooling measures that may be effective include the following:
- Drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages
- A cool shower, bath, or sponge bath
- An air-conditioned environment
- Lightweight clothing
Heat stroke is defined as a core body temperature of more than 105 degrees and brain dysfunction. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
Warning signs of heat stroke vary but may include the following:
- Rapid, strong or weak pulse
- An extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees Fahrenheit or 39.4 degrees Celsius, measured orally)
- Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating)
- Throbbing headache
- Dizziness and nausea
If you see any of these signs, you may be dealing with a life-threatening emergency. Call 911 while you begin cooling the person. Get the person to an air-conditioned or shady area and cool them rapidly using whatever methods you can, for example:
- Place ice packs on areas such as wrist, neck, armpits, groin and back
- Immerse the person in cool water, or apply cool water, such as in a tub or shower, from a garden hose or by sponging water on
- Fan the person swiftly
Monitor body temperature, and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101-102 degrees.
Sometimes a person’s muscles may begin to twitch uncontrollably because of heat stroke. If this happens, prevent self-injury but do not place any object in the mouth and do not give fluids. If there is vomiting, make sure the airway remains open by turning the person on his/her side.
Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms — usually in the abdomen, arms or legs — that may occur in association with sweating during strenuous activity. If you have heart problems or are on a low-sodium diet, get medical attention for heat cramps.
If medical attention is not necessary, take these steps:
- Stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place.
- Drink water or a sports beverage.
- Do not return to strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps subside because further exertion may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
- Seek medical attention for heat cramps if they do not subside in one hour.
Sunburn damages the skin and should be avoided. Although the discomfort is usually minor and healing often occurs in about a week, more severe sunburn may require medical attention or if these symptoms are present:
- Fluid-filled blisters
- Severe pain
Also, remember these tips when treating sunburn:
- Avoid repeated sun exposure.
- Apply cold compresses or immerse the sunburned area in cool water.
- Apply moisturizing lotion to affected areas. Do not use salve, butter or ointment.
- Do not break blisters.
Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. It can occur at any age but is most common in young children.
Heat rash looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It is more likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases.
The best treatment for heat rash is to provide a cooler, less humid environment. Keep the affected area dry. Dusting powder may be used to increase comfort.
Suggestions for staying cool and combating the heat:
- Exercise during the early morning or late evening hours when heat and ozone levels are at the lowest levels of the day.
- If you must be outdoors, try to limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours. Rest often in shade or air-conditioning so that your body’s thermostat will have a chance to recover.
- Drink water. Even people who stay mostly indoors all day should drink at least 2 liters of water per day. People who spend time outdoors should drink 1 to 2 liters per hour while they are outdoors. People who do strenuous activity outdoors should be incredibly careful considering your body can lose up to 4 liters of water per hour during strenuous activity. You should carry water with you and drink even if you do not feel thirsty. Be heat safe and avoid alcohol, which dehydrates the body. Avoid using salt tablets unless directed to do so by a physician.
- Drink a sports beverage to replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat. However, if you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your health care provider before drinking a sports beverage or taking salt tablets.
- Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Dress infants and children in cool, loose clothing and shade their heads and faces with hats or an umbrella.
- Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels) 30 minutes before going out. Continue to reapply according to the package directions.
- Do not leave children or pets in cars, which can heat up to dangerous temperatures very quickly.
- Take showers or baths.