In the Heat of the Moment

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Congratulations, you have survived the ‘Winter from Hell.’ The trees are budding and the first signs of spring have sprung. It seems a long way away, but we need to start thinking about summer and the hot weather. Heat Awareness Day is May 23, 2014.

Anyone who is exposed to extreme heat or hot environments may be at risk of heat stress. Heat-related deaths and illness are preventable, even so an average of 688 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributed to it. Heat stress can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes. Workers at risk of heat stress include outdoor workers, but also workers exposed to hot environments such as firefighters, bakery or kitchen workers, farmers or construction workers, or anywhere you would be wishing for air conditioning. Senior citizens, those who are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take certain medications, infants and children, and athletes may be affected by extreme heat and are at greater risk.

Our bodies naturally react to heat by perspiring and breathing. The Center for Disease Control recommends keeping your body temperature cool to avoid heat-related illness, be sure to stay hydrated because your body loses fluids through sweat (you can become dehydrated during times of extreme heat), and stay updated on local weather forecasts so you can plan activities safely when it’s hot outside.

Heat exhaustion is a common reaction to severe heat and can include symptoms such as dizziness, headache and fainting. With rest, a cool environment and hydration (including refueling of electrolytes, which are necessary for muscle and other body functions) the symptoms diminish. When a person is exposed to heat for a very long time, the first thing that shuts down is the ability to sweat. When perspiration is dried by the air, it has a cooling effect on the body. When perspiration stops, a person can move from heat exhaustion to heat stroke rapidly.

Heat stroke is more severe and requires medical attention—it is often accompanied by dry skin, a body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit, confusion and sometimes unconsciousness.

Heat and humidity is a dangerous combination. When you factor relative humidity into the air temperature, it feels like it is much warmer than the thermometer reads. As an example, if the air temperature is 96°F and the relative humidity is 65%, the heat index—how hot it feels—is 121°F!

We should all remember not to leave children and pets in the cars in any weather, but especially in the warm months. Even with windows open on a mild day, the body absorbs more heat than it can handle. This is called hyperthermia, and is responsible for untold deaths each year.

If you are uncertain whether or not the weather will impact your health, don’t make those plans. Summer is a time for fun in the sun, be smart and be safe…when in doubt, do without.