The season for heat strokes is upon us and it’s time for a friendly reminder to be careful this summer. We have endured several days of significantly high temperatures this month that were dangerous to all who do not take precautions. As indicated in recent news reports across the country, no one is immune to the dangers of excessive temperatures. While the heat is most impactful to the elderly and those with acute medical conditions, even athletes and very healthy individuals can suffer fatalities due to heat strokes.
Heat strokes occur when your body overheats, primarily as a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures and/or physical exertion in the heat. Consumption of alcohol and dehydration can increase these risks. Serious injuries can occur if your body temperature rises to 104 degrees or higher. Individuals who experience a heat stroke require emergency treatment to prevent damage to the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. The damage worsens the longer the treatment is delayed, increasing your risk of serious complications or even death.
The symptoms of a heat stroke include: high body temperature, altered mental state, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, alterations in sweating, a rapid heart rate, headache and rapid breathing. If you or someone you know may be experiencing a heat stroke, seek immediate medical attention. While waiting for medical care, get the individual into the shade, remove excess clothing and cool the person with water, ice packs or whatever is available.
There are several factors that can increase your risk for suffering a heat stroke. The first is age. The ability to cope with extreme heat depends on the strength of your central nervous system. For those who are very young, the central nervous system is not fully developed. This increases the risk. For adults over the age of 65, the central nervous system begins to deteriorate, making the body less able to cope with changes in body temperature. Both age groups also have difficulty remaining hydrated and this also increases risk of heat stroke.
Certain chronic illnesses, such as heart or lung disease, might also enhance your risk of having a heat stroke, as well as being obese, sedentary and having a history of previous heatstroke.
Other risks include extreme exertion during hot weather, such as training and participating in sports during extreme heat. Additionally, sudden exposure to hot weather can be just as dangerous. Unexpected increases in temperature, travel to warmer climates or significant weather changes will increase the risk for a heat stroke. If you are traveling to a warm climate, limit your physical activities for a few days until your body has time to adjust.
Note that fans are helpful and may make you feel better, but during sustained hot weather, air conditioning is the most effective way to cool down and lower humidity. If you don’t have an air conditioner, go to a shopping center or another place where you can stay inside an air-conditioned building until the evening hours. Check on family members, friends and neighbors who may not have air conditioning.
Finally, it’s important to note that certain medications affect your body's ability to stay hydrated and respond to heat. Be especially careful in hot weather if you take medications that narrow your blood vessels (vasoconstrictors), regulate your blood pressure by blocking adrenaline (beta blockers), rid your body of sodium and water (diuretics), or reduce psychiatric symptoms (antidepressants or antipsychotics). Stimulants for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and illegal stimulants such as amphetamines and cocaine also make you more vulnerable to heatstroke.
When in doubt, play it safe and seek medical care at the closest emergency department. Heat can be extremely dangerous.
Eastern Niagara Healthlines is a special feature to the Union-Sun and Journal by the Eastern Niagara Health System. Suresh Sofat, MD, specializes in internal medicine and cardiology at 64 Davison Court, Lockport.