Health Issues: Heat

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By Dr. Michael Miles

Special to the Crier

We are blessed in Oracle with slightly cooler temperatures than the surrounding desert areas. However, as the temperature rises around us it is important to understand how to survive in inhospitable conditions as it is a real possibility to find ourselves stranded or injured while out hiking, exercising, horseback riding or in a disabled car. It may be no surprise that water, shade and rest are critical considerations when in a hot environment. But, can you recognize the difference between heat exhaustion and the life threatening signs of heat stroke? And, do you know what to do to recover from both?

Heat disorders are the result of an overextension of your body’s cooling mechanisms as regulated by the hypothalamus that is found in the brain. As the body heats up, the hypothalamus dilates the blood vessels near the skin to dissipate the heat and increases sweat that evaporates off and cools the body. Excessive sweating can lead to the loss of body minerals and cause muscle cramping. Further loss of minerals can result in heat exhaustion that presents as fatigue, dizziness, nausea, restlessness and headache. The skin is usually pale and clammy, breathing is fast and shallow, and the pulse is rapid and weak. First aid measures include rest in a shady area and drinking plenty of water (with salt added if possible). If unconscious, lay the person on their back and raise their feet above their head.

If the hypothalamus malfunctions, the body may lose its ability to cool itself through sweating, etc. and its temperature may soar to over 107 degrees. This is heat stroke and is life threatening. Certain drugs and fever conditions will affect the hypothalamus and its ability to regulate body temperature. Over-strenuous activity, unsuitable clothing, overeating, and excessive alcohol consumption may also disrupt the cooling process. The symptoms of heat stroke are hot, dry skin, shallow breathing, and rapid, weak pulse. Immediate cooling is critical in this situation. Shade, rest and vigorous fanning will help. If water is available, it should be generously dumped on the person while fanning to increase evaporation. Professional medical attention is very important to determine the cause of the heat stroke and to protect against future episodes.

To review, the first sign of a heat disorder is often muscle cramping. The second stage includes exhaustion, dizziness, nausea, restlessness and headache. The final and critical stage that is “heat stroke” presents as beet red, dry skin with very little sweat. The person can be delirious at this point and immediate attention is critical for survival. To protect against heat disorders, always have plenty of water, don’t overextend yourself and make sure people know where you are.

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