You’re outside in the sun, hanging out with some friends. The temperature’s around 32°C or 90°F. Feeling slightly shaky, you shrug off the sensation as tiredness. Half an hour later, your muscles cramp up and feelings of nausea, dizziness and confusion take over.
Heat stress can create a serious predicament, and can even be fatal. Every year more than 240 people die due to heat illness in North America. This number can climb as high as 1,700 during heat waves. Heat illness is not an issue that should be taken lightly.
Heat can cause you to become inattentive, short-tempered and dizzy. All of these conditions can cause you to behave in an unsafe manner, no matter what the situation is. Heat forces your body to work overtime, using massive amounts of energy in an attempt to cool off.
Hot conditions can be caused by the weather or by the environment that you’re in. Spending all day in an oven would produce the same effects as lying on a hot beach. The only difference, of course, is that people would question what the heck you were doing in an oven.
Heat can produce three different types of sickness, each marked by distinct symptoms and varying degrees of severity.
- Heat cramps – the mildest form of heat sickness. It occurs with large losses of water and minerals causing the muscles to contract in long painful spasms. Fluids, salts and a cooler environment are effective forms of treatment.
- Heat exhaustion – once again the person loses too much salt or water through sweating, but also has an elevated temperature. Other symptoms include nausea, headache, confusion or even passing out. Lying flat in a cool area with water to drink is an effective form of treatment.
- Heat stroke – this is the most dangerous heat illness. The victim may develop slurred speech, dizziness, faintness, hallucination, or slip into a coma. The person may also stop sweating and can be hot and dry to the touch.
In hot weather these factors put you at risk:
- Exercise, especially if you’re not physically fit.
- Wearing heavy clothing.
- Not drinking enough fluids.
- High outdoor humidity.
- Medical conditions including skin or sweat gland diseases, certain kinds of medications and diabetes.
- Drinking too much alcohol.
Here are some tips for preventing heat illness:
- Get used to being in the heat gradually. For example, if the weather suddenly turns hot or you vacation in a warm environment, take it easy until you are accustomed to the temperature.
- Drink water often to avoid dehydration. The body loses water through sweating, so you need to replenish it frequently. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages are diuretics and will actually cause you to lose water.
- Take frequent rest breaks. This allows your body to cool down.
- Do not use salt tablets. Eating lightly-salted food before going out in the sun is a better idea. Sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade are healthy means of replacing the body’s fluid and mineral levels.
- Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.