Heat-Related Illnesses

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In my practice as a direct primary care physician, I have much more time to think about my patient’s medical needs and to provide a medical perspective on a variety of topics that may help my patients. Given that temperatures in Chicago will be nearing 100 degrees this weekend, putting up a post on heat related illness seemed timely.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are common reasons for emergency room visits and can happen to anyone. They occur when your body can’t cool itself down. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses excessive water (usually due to sweating). Signs can include sweating, pale skin, muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, and a rapid heart rate. Confusion, dark urine, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting are also possible. People suffering from heat exhaustion should move to an air-conditioned or shaded area, drink some water or other non-alcoholic cool beverage, and apply wet towels or take a cool shower. Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke if not treated.

Heat stroke symptoms can include high body temperature (above 103 degrees), flushed skin, profound sweating, and sometimes the absence of sweating, headaches, rapid breathing, irrational behavior, convulsions, and unresponsiveness. If someone is showing these signs, call 911, move them to a cool place, and remove their clothing. If available, immerse the person in cold water up to their neck. Other options include covering the individual with cold towels and elevating their legs.

People most at risk for these two conditions are at the extremes of age (infants and people over 65 years old), those with chronic illnesses, and those on certain medications (like water pills). But all of us should make sure to be careful in extreme temperatures. Drink water and limit exercise outdoors during the hottest part of the day or when there is a high heat index. Make sure to go into air-conditioned spaces when available, wear sunscreen, and wear loose lightweight clothing. The summer can be awesome, but the heat that comes with it can be dangerous if the proper precautions aren’t taken.

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