The middle of July usually corresponds with the hottest time of the year in our area. While summer fun often involves adventures in the great outdoors, it is important to remember to take precautions to protect yourself from heat-related health problems.
You may have been watching the news of a heat wave across the East that followed with a massive power outage recently. There were quite a few deaths tied to the heat. Heat-related illness is very real and very dangerous.
Certain people are at highest risk. As with so many other things, this includes infants and young children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases, including those with significant heart problems. People with mental illness are also especially at risk.
Yet anyone is susceptible to heat-related illness. It often occurs when environmental heat exposure accompanies inadequate fluid intake and physical exertion. It seems as if every summer we hear of a young athlete who has died from heat-related illness. It can happen to anyone who does not take the proper precautions.
The simplest strategy for those at highest risk is to minimize heat exposure. This includes scheduling outdoor activities during cooler morning and evening hours. For the elderly, infants and those with chronic illness, staying indoors when the mercury rises is just common sense.
While not necessarily common in our area, indoor air conditioning is actually the No. 1 protective factor against heat-related illness.
It is important to avoid substances that may increase dehydration, alter response to heat and thirst, and impair the body’s cooling system. This includes alcohol and illicit drugs.
Certain prescription drugs increase risk of heat injury. Be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your regimen.
Perhaps one of the most important preventive measures for heat injury is maintaining proper hydration. I’d like to just say “obey your thirst,” but it’s not that simple. Sometimes it’s necessary to pre-hydrate before physical exertion in the heat and maintain fluid intake during frequent scheduled breaks. By the time you get thirsty, you may be a little behind if it is very hot or if your activities are strenuous.
If you start to have headache, light-headedness or nausea, then you are way behind. It’s time to stop, find some shade or air conditioning and drink plenty of fluids.
If you will be exercising in the heat, be smart about it. Pace yourself, take plenty of breaks to cool down and hydrate, and listen to your body. This is one definitive situation when the pain will not bring any gain. There is no added advantage to conditioning yourself in the extreme heat.
Finally, a major no-no. Do not ever leave your child (or your pet) unattended in a car, especially in the heat. The greenhouse effect can turn that car into a sauna, and kids (and pets) have been known to die in such circumstances.
With a little common sense, we can all avoid heat illness this summer.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.