Avoiding and Dealing with Heat-Related Illness
While the summer weather can be pleasant and mood-boosting, soaring temperatures also mean there are certain health risks to take into consideration. This week, temperatures in the UK have reached their highest in years, causing health warnings to be issued, as experts stress the dangers of sweltering conditions.
“While many people enjoy hot weather, high temperatures can be dangerous, especially for people who may be particularly vulnerable such as older people, young children and those with serious illnesses,” says Dr Paul Cosford, Director of Health Protection at Public Health England.
The Importance of Regulating Internal Temperature
The human body needs to maintain a very precise core internal temperature to function healthily. Your core temperature should always be between 98 and 100 degrees. When you’re too hot, your body cools itself down by sweating. When the sweat evaporates from the body, it cools down.
However, sometimes this cooling action is inhibited. If the humidity is high, sweat can take longer to evaporate, which leaves the body unable to regulate its temperature sufficiently. Sometimes other factors, such as obesity, health conditions, alcohol intake or certain medications can also play a role in disrupting this process. Problems in regulating core temperature are generally what lead to heat-related illnesses.
Heat rash can be an obvious but usually minor side effect of high temperatures. If you’re sweating excessively or your sweat is not evaporating as it should, clusters of small red bumps can appear on the skin. Heat rash is relatively easy to deal with. Simply keep the affected areas as dry as possible and move to a cooler, less humid environment.
Sweating decreases the level of salt and moisture in the body, and low salt levels can result in cramps. These cramps typically occur as a result of over-heating caused by exercise or other forms of strenuous activity. You can usually ease these cramps by taking a break from such activity and drinking plenty of water or other cool beverages.
However, heat cramps can sometimes be a symptom of more advanced heat-related illnesses, and if they persist for more than an hour you should seek medical attention.
Heat exhaustion, which is most common in older people, is caused by prolonged periods of exposure to extreme heat. Several days of such conditions can take their toll on the body, thanks to the regular loss of water and salt. People with heat exhaustion sweat heavily and usually suffer from fatigue, fainting, headaches and nausea. The best way to deal with heat exhaustion is to cool the body by drinking plenty of water, taking cool showers and resting in a cool environment.
The most serious heat-related illness is heat stroke, which occurs when the body’s core temperature rises to a dangerous level. In this case, the affected person’s body temperature becomes so high that they can no longer sweat. Within 10 to 15 minutes, it can rise to over 106 degrees. The person’s skin will be hot and dry, their heartbeat rapid and strong, and they can suffer from throbbing headaches, dizziness, seizures and unconsciousness.
A heat stroke is a medical emergency. Medical assistance must be sought immediately and the person’s body must be cooled down rapidly by whatever means are available. Removing clothes, applying ice packs and immersing the person in cold water are just a few of the possible methods.
Keeping Cool In The Summer Heat
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, air-conditioning is the best way to prevent heat-related illness. A few hours exposure during intensely hot days can do a lot to keep your body at a healthy temperature, whether that be air-conditioning in your home or in public spaces such as shopping centres or libraries.
An obvious but important way to respond to the heat is to wear appropriate loose and lightweight clothing, making sure that any skin exposed to the sun is protected by sunscreen.
It’s essential that you drink plenty of fluids. In extreme heat, your body loses a lot of water, so you should drink more than you usually would, even if you don’t feel any more thirsty than usual. When it comes to eating, large hot meals are best avoided, as they heat the body, as does the use of appliances such as ovens.
Exercise should be done in the morning or evening, rather than in the middle of the day when the temperature outdoors is at its highest. In extreme heat, you should be particularly careful to pace yourself and avoid overly strenuous activity.
To cool yourself down, you can take cold showers or baths, or go for a swim. You should make sure you are regularly resting in shaded areas.
While much of what can be done is common sense, it’s worth stressing that there are a number of small parts of your daily routine which should be changed slightly when the conditions are particularly hot. Most heat-related illnesses are avoidable if simple steps are taken.