Staying Safe in the Summer Heat
By: Kristen King
Summer is the time of year when mosquitos come out and the temperature rises. During these warm months it is great to be active outside, but prolonged exposure to the extreme heat can result in heat illness. Heat related issues have the greatest chance of occurring on days when the sun is out and the air temperature and relative humidity are high. The radiant heat from the sun and the hot air surrounding the body will increase body temperature. Heat loss from sweating is significantly decreased once the relative humidity reaches 65 percent, and once it reaches 75 percent, heat loss through sweating basically stops. If you have a spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury you may not able to thermoregulate your body temperature, so high temperatures can be even more dangerous. This is why it is important to know the dangers of heat illness and how to prevent it.
Heat illness has several forms. It ranges in severity from minor to extremely severe. Heat rash, heat cramps, heat syncope (fainting) and heat exhaustion are the most common and least severe forms of heat illness. Heat stroke is the most severe and can lead to death if not caught in time. Heat illness is extremely preventable if the symptoms are recognized and treated quickly.
Symptoms of minor forms of heat illness, like heat cramps and heat exhaustion, can include dizziness, muscle cramps, nausea/vomiting, headache, dehydration, excessive sweating, chills and physical fatigue. If these symptoms are recognized early, stop the activity and move to a cool environment. Rehydrate with chilled water or a sports drink with electrolytes. If there is muscle cramping, stretch the affected muscles lightly. If symptoms do not improve quickly, further medical treatment is needed.
Heat stroke is the most dangerous form of heat illness. The symptoms of heat stroke include rapid breathing, absence of sweating, hot dry skin, seizures, confusion, aggression, headache, low blood pressure and core body temperature greater than 105 degrees F. If these symptoms are recognized, immediately cool down with cold sprays, ice baths, cold towels, fans and call Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
Dehydration is one of the early warning signs in heat related illnesses. Fluid and electrolyte replacement are key factors in the prevention of heat illness. A rule of thumb to prevent dehydration is to hydrate with water before the activity, drink cold water throughout the activity, and hydrate again after. Sports drinks should be available if the activity will last longer than one hour. Certain beverages with high sugar and caffeine levels, like juices, sodas, and coffee, will increase dehydration and should be avoided when trying to rehydrate.
Factors that may cause a greater sensitivity to heat illness are poor conditioning, elevated body fat, dehydration, illness, medications, alcohol, caffeine, sunburn, clothing or equipment that prevents heat loss, a prior history of heat illness and failure to recognize the warning signs. If you have a spinal cord injury above T6, a traumatic brain injury or are known to be susceptible to heat illness, take proper precautions to keep cool. Gradual acclimatization is the single most effective method to avoid heat illness. Building up time outdoors to let your body acclimate to the warmer temperatures is key. Other ways to prevent heat illness are to wear light-weight clothing that is light in color and protects against the sun, always have a water bottle or spray bottle with you while outside, and most importantly, listen to your body. Now get out and enjoy the outdoors!