07/08/04 — Preventing heat-related illnesses

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Preventing heat-related illnesses

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Published in News on July 8, 2004 1:59 PM

The hot, humid weather of summer can be more than just uncomfortable; it can also be life-threatening if precautions are not taken.

Health officials are cautioning the public to guard against heat-related illnesses, many of which are preventable.

"The biggest thing is people just don't realize until it's too late," says Betty Smith, a registered nurse and manager of employee health services at Wayne Memorial Hospital.

She says many long-time North Carolina residents are familiar with the heat and humidity of summer. But when the heat index reaches 110, it is easy to get into trouble without realizing it.

"High temperatures and humidity stress the body's ability to cool itself," she said. "Heat illness becomes a special concern during hot weather.

"A lot of people don't think about it when they're having fun."

She said there are three major forms of heat illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, the latter being the most dangerous.

In 2003, six North Carolinians died from the effects of hot weather. Heat-related illness sent many more to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, according to state statistics.

Dr. Steve Cline, chief of the Epidemiology Section of the N.C. Division of Public Health, says people need to know the signs of heat stress and the simple things to do, like drinking plenty of water, to prevent problems.

Children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses and those on certain medications are especially at risk from high summer temperatures. Older people who live in residences without air conditioning or with respiratory ailments are also more vulnerable.

Being exposed to heat for too long can cause such symptoms as muscle cramps, swelling in feet or ankles, or dizziness which can progress to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Although heat cramps can be painful, they don't usually result in permanent damage, Ms. Smith says.

To prevent them, she said, continue to hydrate the body by drinking lots of water. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages, however, are not recommended.

She also recommended drinking something that has electrolytes, such as Gatorade, during the day and eating more fruits like bananas. "Electrolyte drinks are good for replacing both water and minerals lost through sweating," she added.

What many people don't realize, she said, is that by the time a person feels thirsty, it is almost too late.

"You need it before you get to that point," she said. "By then, there's a good chance you're already on your way to being dehydrated."

More serious than heat cramps is heat exhaustion, she says. It occurs when the body's "internal air-conditioning system" is overworked. Symptoms include headache, heavy sweating, intense thirst, dizziness, fatigue, loss of coordination, nausea, tingling in hands and feet, cool moist skin, weak and rapid pulse, and low to normal blood pressure.

"Somebody suffering these symptoms should be moved to a cool location," recommends Ms. Smith. "Have them lie down with their feet slightly elevated."

She suggests applying wet, cool cloths and providing water or electrolyte drinks. The person should also be checked by a health professional, and strenuous activity should be avoided for at least a day.

Heat stroke, a condition with a high death rate, occurs when the body has depleted its water and salt supply. It causes the body temperature to rise to a deadly level. It is typically the culmination of symptoms from milder forms of heat cramps or exhaustion.

"It should be noted that, on the job, heat stroke is sometimes mistaken for heart attack," Ms. Smith said.

Early symptoms, she said, include a high body temperature, usually a distinct absence of sweating, rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms seen in milder forms of heat illness. Advance symptoms may be seizures, collapse, loss of consciousness and a body temperature over 108 degrees.

The important thing to remember, Ms. Smith said, is that anyone can suffer a heat illness, but it can often be prevented by taking simple precautions.

Among suggestions released from health officials:

*Be careful about exercising or strenuous activities during hotter weather. Stay out of the sun, take frequent breaks, and drink water or juice often.

*Take a break if overheated or at the start of a headache.

*Wear lightweight, light colored clothing when working outside.

*In a home without air conditioning or fans, open windows to allow air floor and keep shades, blinds or curtains drawn in the hottest part of the day.

*Never leave a child or a disabled or elderly person or pet in an unattended car, even with the windows down. A closed vehicle can heat up to dangerous levels in as little as 10 minutes. Last year, 154 children in the United States died in hot cars.

*Pets also need plenty of water and shade.

"With a little caution and common sense, you can avoid heat illnesses," Ms. Smith said.