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Understanding and Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

Scarlett Reed M. D.

As the summer months approach, the risk of heat-related illnesses increases significantly. It’s crucial to recognize the symptoms of these illnesses and take preventive measures to stay safe during extreme heat.

Types of Heat-Related Illnesses

  1. Heat Cramps: These are painful muscle spasms, often occurring in the legs, arms, or abdomen. They are typically caused by heavy exercise in hot conditions and an imbalance of electrolytes.

  2. Heat Exhaustion: Symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, cold, pale and clammy skin, a fast but weak pulse, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. Heat exhaustion occurs due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures, particularly when combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activity.

  3. Heat Stroke: This is the most severe form of heat-related illness and is a medical emergency. Symptoms include a high body temperature (above 103°F), hot, red, dry or moist skin, rapid and strong pulse, and possible unconsciousness. Heat stroke occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature, leading to a rapid rise in body temperature.

Prevention Tips

Here are several key recommendations to help prevent heat-related illnesses:

  1. Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Avoid alcohol and caffeine as they can lead to dehydration.

  2. Wear Appropriate Clothing: Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing made of breathable fabrics like cotton can help keep your body cool.

  3. Limit Outdoor Activities: Try to schedule outdoor activities during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late evening. If you must be outside during peak heat, take frequent breaks in the shade or indoors.

  4. Use Sunscreen: Sunburn affects the body’s ability to cool down and can make you dehydrated. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

  5. Stay Cool Indoors: Use air conditioning if possible. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, spend time in air-conditioned public places like shopping malls or libraries.

  6. Monitor Those at Risk: Pay special attention to infants, children, elderly individuals, and those with chronic illnesses, as they are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Never leave anyone, especially children and pets, in a parked car.

  7. Acclimate Gradually: If you’re not used to the heat, take it easy at first and gradually increase your exposure.

Recognizing and Responding to Symptoms

If you or someone else shows signs of heat-related illness, it’s important to act quickly:

  • For Heat Cramps: Stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place. Drink clear juice or a sports drink. Do not return to strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps subside.

  • For Heat Exhaustion: Move to a cooler environment, loosen clothing, apply cool, wet cloths to as much of the body as possible, and sip water. People with suspected heat exhaustion should be evaluated and treated in the emergency department.

  • For Heat Stroke: Call 911 immediately. Move the person to a cooler environment and reduce body temperature with cool clothes or a cool bath.

By understanding the risks and taking these preventive steps, you can protect yourself and others from the dangers of heat-related illnesses. Stay cool, stay hydrated, and stay informed to enjoy a safe and healthy summer.


Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke


Dr. Reed is a resident physician who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.