Warm weather usually means lots of summer fun and outdoor activities. Unfortunately, the combination of high heat and high humidity can be very dangerous.
Forecasters are predicting temperatures along the East Coast over the next few days to be in the upper 90's with a heat index of over 100. That can cause health problems, especially in older adults and infants. High temperature and increased humidity can be very dangerous for both of these groups as well as for others who traditionally work outdoors, such as farm workers, firefighters, police officers, construction workers, sanitation workers and road crews.
“One or two days of extremely high temperatures and humidity are usually not a problem for most healthy people,” said Dr. David Goldwag, director of the Emergency Department at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. “However, when the temperatures and humidity remain that high for more than three or four days, that's when we begin to see the potential for a spike in emergency department visits by people suffering from heat-related illnesses."
Heat cramps occur as a result of excessive loss of sodium and other electrolytes, as the body looks for additional resources to cool down. Signs and symptoms include cramping of abdominal muscles and the muscle of the long bones in the extremities. This condition is self-correcting once the person is hydrated and removed from the heat source.
Heat exhaustion commonly is seen in people who are outside or in a hot space for an extended period of time. Generally, this condition is not life threatening and is self-correcting once the person is hydrated and removed from the heat. Signs and symptoms include perfuse sweating and nausea, possibly with cramps of the long bone muscles. If left uncorrected, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal. Heat exhaustion also can occur indoors in poorly ventilated areas, such as homes and apartments with all of the windows closed.
Heat Stroke is the most serious condition and and is seen in people who have suffered from untreated heat exhaustion. The body loses its ability to cool itself down and body temperatures begin to soar (they have been known to go as high as 105-106 degrees). Heat stroke can lead to seizures or even death if untreated.
“Staying hydrated is extremely important especially on days when both the heat and humidity are high,” said Goldwag. “People, especially those predisposed to heat-related illnesses, should drink plenty of fluids before, during and after any outdoor activities. Anyone who will be spending time outdoors [this summer] should be aware of the signs and symptoms associated with heat-related illness. If you think you may be suffering from the effects of the heat, remove yourself from the element and seek medical attention."
Who is most susceptible to heat related emergencies?
The elderly: Older people may be unaware of their limitations. Due to limited mobility, they may be forced to spend too much time exposed to heat as a result of slow ambulation.
The very young: Infants and young children have thermo-regulatory systems that still are immature and their bodies may not be able to cool off naturally.
Those with certain Infirmities: They may not be able to get out of heated areas, such as apartments with no air conditioning or fans. Asthma patients who forget to take their medication out with them also are at risk during hotter, more humid weather.
Outdoor workers: People who spend the majority of their time working outside, such as farm workers, landscapers, firefighters, police officers, construction workers, sanitation workers and road crews.
Goldwag offers these hot weather tips:
- Wear breathable lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Limit your exposure to the heat and the sun and to places without proper ventilation.
- Know your limitations. This may not be the week to begin your new outdoor exercise program. Limit exercise and outdoor activities to cooler periods early in the day or later in the evening.
- Check on elderly and disabled family members, friends and neighbors.
- Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water (sports drinks are OK), before, during and after any outdoor activity. Avoid alcoholic beverages; although quite refreshing, they can have an adverse affect on your body’s ability to regulate heat. Most of all hydrate, hydrate and hydrate.
- If you can, go to the beach or to locations that traditionally are cool such as a city or community pool, a movie theater or a mall or bowling alley.