Heat Illness – What You Need to Know

If you work, exercise, or recreate outside, it will come as no surprise that it is hot! Along with sun and heat comes the associated risks, including sunburn, dehydration, and heat illness. Heat illness is a severe medical condition caused by the body’s inability to maintain an average body temperature. Symptoms include cramps, rash, exhaustion, fainting, or potentially fatal heatstroke. Increased heat and humidity combined with intense physical activities can cause increased body temperatures, and the symptoms of heat illness may not be easy to recognize. Below we will discuss some of the more common signs of heat illnesses along with some prevention tips.

Prevention Begins with Awareness

Heat Cramps

Heat Cramps are very painful muscle spasms or contractions that occur during or after intense exercise or increased physical activities. These cramps can be reduced or eliminated by resting, drinking water, and adding a few sports drinks containing electrolytes and carbohydrates. 

Heat Rash

Heat Rash, also known as prickly heat, is frequently a result of restrictive clothing. This rash is a result of the skin being constantly wet with perspiration. This condition usually is self-healing and will disappear when the skin is cools down and dries.  

Heat Exhaustion

Heat Exhaustion is a result of high temperatures, humidity, and inadequate fluid intake. Signs and symptoms include slightly elevated body temperature, rapid pulse, heavy sweating, headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst, irritability, decreased and darker than usual urine. To treat it is best to remove restrictive clothing, cool the person, and take frequent sips of cool (not cold water). If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to life-threatening heatstroke.      

Heat Stroke

Heat Stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and can be life-threatening. It is a result of overexposure to high temperatures and humidity. Heatstroke is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. Symptoms include confusion, slurred speech, unconsciousness, seizures, extremely high body temperatures, hot, dry skin, or profuse sweating. It is best to call 911 immediately, move to a shaded or cool area, remove outer clothing, wet the person with cool water, and, if possible, circulate air to increase cooling. If the victim is suffering from heatstroke, it is best not to give them any liquids. A person in an altered mental state runs the risk of the liquids aspirating into their lungs; medical professionals will typically start an IV immediately upon arrival.   

Some tips for heat illness prevention include: 

  • Use the buddy system when working in the heat so you can keep an eye on each other.  
  • Increase exposure to hot and humid climates slowly. It can take up to 14 days to become fully acclimated.  
  • Avoid hot, heavy meals.  
  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting light-colored clothing along with sunscreen.  
  • Attempt to accomplish tasks during the cooler parts of the day and pace yourself.  
  • Take frequent breaks in an area where you can cool off.  
  • Make sure you are drinking plenty of water, everyone is different, but a good start is 8-ounces of water every 15-20 minutes.  
  • If you choose to use sports drinks, please do so in moderation. Always consume them in conjunction with lots of water.  

Don’t Forget!

Remember that the temperature inside an automobile can increase very rapidly, even with sunshades and the windows cracked. Never leave children or pets in a parked car! Most states have a “Good Samaritan Law” that offers legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those who are, or whom they believe to be injured, ill, in peril, or otherwise incapacitated. Therefore, a bystander can assist with the removal of the victim without fear of legal consequences. There are also “No Heat Stroke Laws” in some states. Leaving a child unattended in a hot automobile can result in hefty fines or felony charges.  

Written by: David Qualls, APSS, OSHA Authorized Trainer, Director of Risk Management

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