Houston is experiencing a hotter-than-average summer so far this year, and we can expect the health of Houstonians to see an impact as a result. While it’s often uncomfortable unless you’re inside a well air-conditioned space, an intense heat wave can also cause health problems for some. In this article, doctors give helpful insight into the causes of heat-related health issues and how we can avoid serious complications.
Understanding Heat Stroke vs. Heat Exhaustion
As Texans, we have likely felt the weak, thirsty, dizzy, or even cramping feeling that comes from being in the heat for too long. This is heat exhaustion, and it can be accompanied by other overheating symptoms like nausea, profuse sweating, decreased coordination, and intense fatigue.
Heat stroke, on the other hand, involves a whole-body reaction involving your brain and the rest of your vital organs. When this high body temperature is matched with a brain dysfunction, the results can be deadly. In fact, heat stroke from exertion is the most common cause of death for pediatric athletes. Because the indicators aren’t clear for when to seek medical treatment, heat stroke can sneak up on you.
It’s important, especially in a high heat index, to pay attention if you feel poorly or start acting strange. Early signs like fatigue and thirst can be indicators that it’s time to get out of the heat, because once someone gets close to the point of heat stroke, the ability to think clearly decreases.
If you or someone you know experiences confusion or fainting in high temperatures, it’s time to seek medical attention. You should also start the cooling process immediately.
Hydration is Key!
When a heat wave hits, our bodies kick into high gear to try and keep us cool with our protective mechanisms. This is why we sweat! Sweating is the most important way our body keeps cool, but as we sweat we have to keep those fluids replenished.
Simple dehydration is a common cause of health problems when the temps start rising. According to the National Academy of Medicine, women need more than 2.5 liters of water every day. Men need more than 3.5 liters!
Luckily, about 20% of your daily water intake comes from the food you eat, and you can boost this by consuming foods like cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries, watermelon, and celery that have a high water content. The rest comes from fluids you drink, so setting reminders, adding fruit to your water, or drinking naturally flavored sparkling water can help you get every ounce in.
Humidity and the Heat Index
Texas is known for hot summers, but what really makes a difference in our body’s ability to manage and regulate temperature is the heat index. “Heat index is the combination of ambient (surrounding) air temperature plus humidity,” says Dr. Samuel M. Keim at the University of Arizona. A heat index over 90 degrees puts people at high risk regardless of activity and a heat index over 100 degrees creates a high-risk environment for heat stroke.
The combination of humidity and heat adds to the thermal load that our bodies have to try and compensate for. Dr. Keim recommends staying hydrated and getting your exercise in early in the morning, when the temps are cooler.
In urban environments like Houston, “heat islands” can occur, where high densities of concrete and asphalt, mixed with less vegetation create hotter than usual pockets. The cooling capabilities of evaporation are reduced in those environments. For low-income populations that often live in more urban environments, the lack of air-conditioning and intense heat can create dangerous scenarios that put the health of that population at risk. To be proactive and protect against heat-related illness and injury, keep your home and your body cool by closing blinds and drapes to reduce sun exposure, avoiding indoor cooking with the oven or stove, and utilizing fans. If the heat becomes too much, find a community cooling center. And most importantly, pay attention to how your body is feeling!
Until our first cold-snap in the fall, we can all stand to pay attention to how our bodies are handling the heat, and do what we can to help our neighbors stay cool. If you find yourself with a heat related health emergency, Texas Emergency Care is here to help!
Adapted from this article.