With the warmer weather and longer days, summertime is the perfect opportunity to get outside and be active.
If you’re exercising outdoors this summer, or just having fun in the sun, it’s important to be aware of heat-related illnesses, like heat stroke and exhaustion, and know how to prevent them.
Heat exhaustion happens when your body isn’t able to regulate its own temperature, and it begins to rise. This can happen when you’re working out rigorously or when you’re doing yard work outside on a hot day. When temperatures get hotter, the risk of heat exhaustion goes up and it can lead to heat stroke, which is much more serious.
Heat stroke happens when you’ve been overexposed to heat, and your body temperature gets too high. Once your body temperature reaches 105 degrees Fahrenheit, we consider that heat stroke, which requires urgent medical attention. When heat stroke becomes severe, a person can stop sweating — which is the body’s cooling mechanism.
While anybody can be at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the elderly are at a higher risk of heat-related illnesses.
Also, people with chronic illnesses who take certain medications, which make them more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays, may be more susceptible to heat-related illnesses.
Postal carriers, construction workers and others who work outside in the summer are also at a higher risk of heat stroke.
Some signs of heat stroke include fatigue and drowsiness, confusion, slurred words, headaches and skin which is red and hot to the touch (similar to a sunburn). Alcohol use can compound these effects.
Cooling the skin down when warning signs begin to appear is the best thing you can do on the preventative side. If you notice that your skin is getting too hot, move into the shade or air conditioning and use cool water or ice packs to cool the skin. You can also spray the skin with cold water.
If more severe symptoms are present — such as headaches, confusion, weakness — or a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher is reached, it’s best to go to urgent care for an assessment. In these extreme cases, it may be necessary for a healthcare professional to administer IV fluids.
It’s important to take heat stroke seriously because an extremely high body temperature can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs. While rare, heat-related illnesses can be fatal.
When you’re out in the sun, wear hats, lightweight clothing and sunblock that’s at least 30 SPF. Also, seek out shade and avoid being in the blazing hot sun for hours.
Also, it’s a good idea to limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the peak hours of the day (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) when the sun’s rays are strongest.
(Caroline King-Widdall, MD, is a family medicine physician and physician in charge at Kaiser Permanente’s Keizer Station and West Salem Medical Offices.)