With temperatures and heat indexes spiraling out of control this summer, it's everyone's responsibility to know the dangers of heat and how it can affect your body. For instance, when you receive notification that the "black flag" is out, why does this happen and what does it mean?
Hot conditions put your body under a lot of stress. Physical activity stresses the body even more. When heat is combined with physical activity, loss of fluids, fatigue, and other conditions can lead to a number of heat-related illnesses and injuries. Death is even possible.
Heat stress is commonly associated with warm weather. It's true that warm weather increases the number of heat-stress injuries and illnesses. Warm weather isn't the only cause of heat stress, though. Heat stress can occur any time the surrounding temperature is elevated. Even if the weather is cool, you may work in warm areas, indoors or out. Be alert for conditions which could cause heat stress and take precautions to prevent it.
Six main factors are involved in causing heat stress:
- movement of air
- radiant temperature
of the surroundings
- physical activity
Adjusting to these factors and/or controlling them reduce the chance of heat stress
There are a number of types of heat stress injuries. Some are annoying but not very serious. Others can quickly lead to life-threatening situations. Knowing what to look out for is important. This is especially true because the more serious heat stress conditions cause the victim to become disoriented and unaware of their condition. People who are overweight, physically unfit, suffer from heart conditions, drink too much alcohol or are not acclimated to the temperature are at greater risk of heat stress and should seek and follow medical advice.
The major heat stress injuries and illnesses are described here:
Heat Rash is caused by a hot, humid environment and plugged sweat glands. It is a bumpy red rash which itches severely. It is not life-threatening but is very annoying. Dry clothes that help sweat evaporate will reduce the chance of heat rash. Washing regularly and keeping the skin clean and dry will help prevent heat rash.
Heat Cramps are painful muscle cramps caused by a loss of body salt through excessive sweating. To help prevent heat cramps, drink plenty of non-alcoholic, caffeine-free fluids while working in a hot environment. Check with your doctor about the use of salt tablets. They may be recommended in some cases. Anyone suffering from heat cramps should be watched carefully for signs of more serious heat stress. If the cramps persist or other symptoms develop, seek medical attention immediately.
Heat Syncope (pronounced "sin-co-pay") is sudden fainting caused by a reduced blood flow to the head. The victim's skin will be cool and moist and their pulse will be weak. Immediate medical attention is needed in the event of syncope.
Heat Exhaustion results from inadequate salt and water intake and is a sign the body's cooling system is not working properly. The victim will sweat heavily, their skin will be cool and moist, their pulse weak, and they will seem tired, confused, clumsy, irritable or upset, they may breathe rapidly--even pant--and their vision may be blurred. The victim may strongly argue that they are okay even with these obvious symptoms. If you suspect heat exhaustion, don't let the victim talk you out of seeking immediate medical attention. The heat exhaustion will affect their ability to exercise good judgment. Until medical help arrives, try to cool the victim and offer sips of cool water as long as the victim is conscious. Immediate medical attention is required. Heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke.
Heat Stroke is the deadliest of all heat stress conditions. It occurs when the body's cooling mechanism has shut down after extreme loss of salt and fluids. The body temperature will rise, the victim's skin is hot, red, and dry, their pulse fast, and they may complain of headache or dizziness. They will probably be weak, confused, and upset. Later stages of heat stroke cause a loss of consciousness and may lead to convulsions. In the event of heat stroke, seek immediate medical attention. Until help arrives, try to cool the victim and offer sips of cool water if the victim is conscious.
Recognizing the symptoms of heat stress is very important, particularly since the victim may not realize what is happening. If you work alone in a hot environment, develop a "buddy system" so someone will check in on you periodically to look for signs of heat stress.
To beat the heat, take these precautions:
- Know the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and monitor yourself and those around you.
- Whenever possible, block direct sun or other heat sources.
- Go into an air conditioned space to rest frequently when participating in sports or working outside.
- Drink lots of water; about one cup every 15 minutes. Avoid alcohol, caffeinated drinks and heavy meals.
- Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing.
- Call 911 immediately when you recognize signs of heat stroke.
- While waiting for help, move the person to a cool, shaded area, loosen or remove heavy or tight clothing, provide cool drinking water, and fan or mist the person with water.
- Avoid physically exerting yourself or exercising during the hottest hours of the day (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Most importantly - stay hydrated!
Once you realize you're thirsty, your body may already be in danger.
- Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids several hours prior to exercise and drink cool water often during physical activity.
- Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink water. Thirst is a late signal of severe fluid loss.
- Symptoms of dehydration include muscle cramps, decreased blood pressure and dizziness.
- Even small degrees of dehydration will cause a decrease in performance.
Preventing heat stress is a matter of controlling the factors that cause it. Use the precautions mentioned in this article, and don't hesitate to seek assistance if you suspect heat stress. Your good health depends on it!