Health Break | Published July 22, 2011 | Written by Theo Waksmunski, RN

Don't Get Overheated on Summer Days

When is hot too hot?

Normally your body does a good job regulating your temperature regardless of the ambient temperature. The body self regulates by sweating and giving off or radiating extra heat. When the body is exposed to more heat than it can lose or generates more, hyperthermia (temperature over 101) can result.

The best defense is to keep yourself well hydrated when temperatures are high or when you’re working hard in a hot environment. Keep in mind that high temperatures and humidity can interfere with your body’s ability to lose extra heat.

Illnesses caused by heat usually takes one of three forms: heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur after vigorous exercise. They do not only occur when it’s hot outside. Treatment is usually replacement of fluids by mouth, such as water, diluted Gatorade or other electrolyte-based solutions. Heat exhaustion is usually caused by heat exposure and loss of fluids and electrolytes from sweating. Those most prone to heat exhaustion are the elderly, people with high-blood pressure and those working or exercising in a hot environment. Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, weakness, muscle cramps, fainting, nausea, vomiting and headache. Body temperature is often normal or slightly elevated. Treatment includes removing any extra clothing, moving the person into a cooler area and providing fluids (non alcoholic) if the person is able to tolerate them.

Heat stroke is the least common heat illness, but it is also the most serious. The body is exposed to more heat than it can handle and the normal mechanisms for getting rid of the extra heat are overwhelmed. The body temperature rises rapidly to the level that body tissues are destroyed. This can occur during heat waves or during periods of vigorous physical activity. Children are especially susceptible, so NEVER leave a child unattended in a locked car on a hot day. Other people who may be prone to heat stroke include infants, the elderly, athletes, and people who work outside in the hot sun. Signs and symptoms include hot, dry, flushed skin; body temperatures rise to 106 F; change in level of consciousness to unresponsiveness; seizures. Please remember heat stroke is a medical emergency and you should call 911 for help. Treatment is rapid cooling of the person. Heat stroke can be fatal if not handled promptly and properly.

To prevent heat-related illnesses you should monitor situations where the body can become overheated. Consider wearing loose-fitting clothing that will allow sweat to evaporate where possible and wear light-colored clothing while out in the bright sun. Keep the head covered with a broad-brimmed hat and avoid strenuous exercise during hot weather. Finally, keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids to replace those lost by sweating.


Theo Waksmunski, RN is the Nurse Manager of the Emergency Department at Mount Nittany Medical Center, State College, Pa. More wellness articles are available at www.mountnittany.org.

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