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The heat is on! Measures to prevent heat emergencies

Dr. Cai Glushak, International Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer AXA Partners

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The heat is here. In recent years, climate change has caused many temperate zones to experience progressive record high temperatures and prolonged heat waves. This season in the northern hemisphere, the heat season has already started, well before the traditional warmest months of July and August.

In addition to the inherent threat of excessive temperatures, many people are still working from home where they may not have air conditioning. Exposure is a more constant concern.

For both residents and vacationers, being prepared for excessive heat is essential for health maintenance and to avoid potentially disastrous heat conditions.

Who is at risk?

Extreme heat conditions can be dangerous for everyone, including young and fit adults. We have all heard of healthy athletes falling prey to extreme heat during marathons and other physical activities.

Of course, it is the extremes of age – the elderly and the v​ery young who are most vulnerable. Elderly people are often isolated and have underlying health conditions putting them at increased risk of dehydration and decompensation. They may have altered ability to sense excessive heat – not having the same drive to consume liquids. Infants and children have greater body surface area, disposing them to become dehydrated and absorb heat rays more easily. They are far more vulnerable to sunburn as a result.

Several levels of heat illness

Burns - Summer is wildfire season and many residents and travelers may become victims of fires with little warning.

Sunburn - In addition to severe thermal burns to skin, excessive sun exposure can result in heat illness itself. Victims of sunburn may require both burn care as well as underlying heat illness treatment.

Heat illness – This is a continuum of illness in which a person’s underlying temperature control is progressively deranged and fluid losses occur:

  • Heat rash - a prickly irritating rash due to blocked pores. Easily treated by resting in the shade and spraying down with water.
  • Heat cramps - pains in extremities or abdomen due to loss of fluid and electrolytes. Usually resolved by drinking fluids with electrolytes.
  • Heat exhaustion - general weakness and dehydration with or without elevated temperature. Symptoms include: weakness, dizziness, rapid pulse, decrease urination, elevated temperature. Seek medical attention for this.
  • Heat stroke- complete breakdown in internal temperature control often with organ failure. Symptoms: high temperature, hot/dry skin; altered mental status; rapid heart rate and breathing. A severe emergency needing immediate hospital care.

How to avoid a heat disaster

Heat related illness and injury are 100% avoidable. Many simple measures will help avoid tragic circumstances.

  • Pay attention to forecasts and fire warnings.
  • Keep plenty of fluids on hand.
  • Be aware of escape routes for evacuation and leave early upon announcements from emergency authorities.
  • Take advantage of nearby cooling centers set up to shelter persons who are subject to excessive heat.
  • Check on elderly and vulnerable neighbors during periods of excessive temperatures. Dependent and aged persons should be checked at least twice a day.

Take personal measures

  • Stay in the shade and take advantage of air conditioning.
  • Stay hydrated – drink plenty of fluids with electrolytes, especially during physical activity and outdoors. Do not wait to be extremely thirsty or feel weak.
  • Wear light clothing, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses.
  • Avoid alcohol – this can intensify the danger of heat exposure and promote dehydration.
  • Cool down with tepid showers to help heat dissipate.
  • Avoid exercise during the peak heat hours of the day; stop regularly to hydrate.
  • Wear sunblock; reapply it after swimming.
  • Use fans – these are especially effective in humid conditions; however, they can increase heat effect in very dry heat.
  • Be especially cautious if you are taking certain medications that predispose to heat illness; check with your doctor or on-line to know if you are at risk (www.drugs.com).
  • Seek immediate medical care if feeling weak, dizzy or confused (confusion and altered consciousness is a very serious symptom.

For Children

Kids are especially vulnerable to heat illness because of their high body surface area leading to higher exposure. They are inclined to play in the hot weather without noticing the effects of the heat.

Take all the measures noted above and especially:

  • Apply sunblock regularly and re-apply after swimming and showering.
  • Make sure the children are staying hydrated with liquids.
  • They should have frequent breaks in the shade.

If all of the above easy to apply measures are applied, there should be no victims of heat emergencies.

Enjoy the summer and your holidays!

 

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