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Recognizing and avoiding heat-related illnesses

This year, it feels like the Hudson Valley and Catskills skipped springtime and dove headlong into the dog days of summer. As the temperatures rise, so does the potential for heat-related illnesses. It’s important to understand the risks and know the signs of these illnesses that may affect you and your family while you’re enjoying the sun and how to respond if they do.

Three common heat-related illnesses are heat rash, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In that order, they present an easy-to-recognize range of severity beginning with the relatively mild to severe and potentially deadly.

Heat rash is just what it sounds like, an irritation of the skin brought on by excessive sweating. It is not a sunburn, and more closely resembles pimples or blisters on the skin. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) caution us to pay special attention to areas like the neck, chest, groin area, under the breasts and in elbow creases for the appearance of this irritation.

Heat exhaustion is our body’s natural response to dehydration, and can creep up on us on those sweaty, humid days. Heat exhaustion can be a precursor to heat stroke. Red flags include weakness and fatigue-possibly to the point of passing out, as well as feeling very thirsty, becoming irritable, experiencing nausea and even vomiting.

Heat stroke is the most severe of these three illnesses, and it’s the one that could land you in the hospital. Once your body becomes unable to control its temperature, it can climb to 106°F and even higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Besides hot skin, heat stroke can cause a heavy, racing pulse, headache, dizziness and nausea, or even confusion and loss of consciousness. The CDC cautions that heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if timely emergency treatment is not received.

So, what to do when heat-related symptoms interrupt a summer day? When symptoms like these begin, you should move to a shaded or indoor location to get yourself cooled down immediately. If you find that you are suddenly overcome to the point of passing out or vomiting, you’ve unfortunately allowed yourself to go too long in the heat, and someone should transport you to the nearest hospital.

Precautions

Everyone is susceptible to heat-related illnesses, and everyone should choose their activities and destinations carefully on very hot summer days. Stay hydrated when heat and humidity soar to avoid dehydration. On days with intense sun and heat, dress in a single layer of loose-fitting, light-colored clothing. This is also a good idea for infants and young children. Unfit people, obese people, anyone with an acute illness are all particularly susceptible, as are the elderly, particularly those 80 and over. Making time to check in on older relatives and neighbors on hot days is a kind and important practice.

You can take the hot weather up on its invitation to outdoor fun; just keep these symptoms in mind and know the potential consequences. A little planning ahead is all it takes to beat the heat, while you take in all the best that summer has to offer. 

[Lauren S. Roman, MD is director of primary care, Sullivan County for Catskill Regional Medical Group and a lifelong Sullivan County resident. She is board-certified in family medicine and received her medical degree from the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Studies.]

 

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