Claremore Daily Progress

August 4, 2011

High temperatures, high risk for heat related illnesses

Tom Fink
Staff Writer

CLAREMORE — Humorist Mark Twain is often credited with having said everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

While there’s little that can be done about the recent record-breaking temperatures, a local doctor says there are steps which can be taken to help persons deal with the extreme heat.

“Summer months are always a time when people should take care because of the heat, and during a summer of record-breaking temperatures, that’s more true than ever,” said Dr. Todd Hoffman, emergency physician, St. John Health System, Owasso. “Risks associated from the extreme heat can vary from dehydration to mild or severe cases of heat frustration to heat stroke — a life-threatening condition which, if not treated, could lead to death.”

Heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke all occur when a person’s body cannot cool itself adequately, but each differ slightly, Dr. Hoffman said.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses large amounts of water and salt through excessive sweating, particularly through hard physical labor or exercise.

This loss of essential fluids can disrupt circulation and interfere with brain function. Persons who have heart problems or are on low-sodium diets may be particularly susceptible to heat exhaustion.

As with heat exhaustion, heat cramps can strike when the body loses excessive amounts of fluids and salt, leading to painful muscle aches or spasms in the arms, leg or abdomen.

Heat cramps typically occurs during heavy exertion while in prolonged hot (climate) conditions.

Heat stroke, the most serious of the heat-related illnesses, occurs when the body suffers from long, intense exposure to heat and loses its ability to cool itself.

In prolonged, extreme heat, such as Oklahomans have endured in recent weeks, the part of the brain which normally regulates body temperature malfunctions.

This malfunction decreases the body's ability to sweat and, therefore, cool itself.

“When a person comes in with heat stroke, they’re in bad shape, typically with a temperature of 103 degrees — this isn’t a fever, this is their (internal) body temperature because their ability to sweat has malfunctioned or shut down,” Dr. Hoffman said. “They’re dizzy, confused, having difficulty breathing, and, unless they get immediate help, could even die.”

As if the point needed emphasis, a 55-year-old Texas high school football coach died earlier this week after collapsing at a break during the school’s first day of practice for the season. The extreme heat was later determined to be a contributor to his death.

“Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t have a choice — largely because of their jobs — about whether or not to be out in the heat, and with the temperature extremes we’ve seen lately, they’re at a higher risk than usual (during the summer) to become susceptible to heat-related illnesses,” Dr. Hoffman said.

For persons who do spend prolonged time outside, Dr. Hoffman offers some practical tips to help prevent them from being overwhelmed by the heat.

“If you have to work outside, if it’s at all possible, do your work in the early morning or late in the evening,” he said. “I’ve been talking to some construction workers who have started their days at sunrise and stopped about 2 p.m. and picking up the work again later that night — breaking their work into shifts, avoiding being out in it when the heat is at its worst.

“Take frequent breaks and rest often, when you can, get into the shade or, when taking breaks, spend  a few minutes inside somewhere cooler or if possible, with air-conditioning,” he said.

“Of course, if you’re going to be outside for any length of time, keep yourself hydrated. I can’t emphasize this enough always have fluids handy.”

Dr. Hoffman said water is always preferable for hydration with occasional Gatorade to replenish electrolytes lost through perspiration.

“Of course it goes without saying, avoid alcohol,” he said, “and don’t drink anything with sugar or caffeine, both of which increase urination and can make you dehydrate faster.”

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat to shade the face and wearing lightweight, light-colored clothing are also preferable, Dr. Hoffman said.

“Definitely avoid dark clothes this time of year as they absorb more heat — no black t-shirts or dark pants,” he said, “and make sure your clothing isn’t tight or constricting, Wearing loose-fitting clothing is way to keep yourself cooler.”

Although not directly related to the heat, sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher is also advisable to prevent sunburn, Dr. Hoffman said.

“Typically, persons with chronic health problems or those who are extremely young or old are the most susceptibel to the (extreme) heat, but with the temperatures stuck above the 100 degree mark lately, no one is immune to being at risk of heat-related illnesses,” he said.

“Three things to remember — take it easy, rest often and stay hydrated.”