By Peter Kummerfeldt
According to the National Weather Service, in 2020, more people died from heat related issues than from any other weather related phenomena. 2021 is looking like more of the same – if not worse! Heat related medical problems are not limited to the desert Southwest. With the changing climate patterns the country is experiencing life-endangering summer temperatures can occur just about anywhere – and probably will.
In a hot environment, thermal balance, specifically your ability to keep your body temperature below 98.6℉, is achieved by continually cooling the body and minimizing thermal gain from the surroundings. Heat loss by evaporation is the body’s primary way of dumping heat, but this is only effective where there is sufficient water within the body to be evaporated. Heat gain from your surround-ings can be reduced by seeking shade and minimizing contact with objects that are hotter than your body. Lacking water and shade can quickly cause your body temperature to rise to the point where your mental and physical function is impaired and you can quickly reach a point where your survival becomes questionable.
Dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and hyponatremia are four potentially life threatening medical conditions that you might experience if you find yourself unprotected, without adequate water, in extreme heat.
Dehydration Under normal circumstances a person will lose about 1.5 quarts of water per day through normal body functions – urination, defecation, evaporation.
Some of this water will be replaced by the water produced by metabolism – the rest, about one quart, must be consumed to maintain water balance. In extreme heat the amount of water needed to prevent dehydration and sustain life can amount to a gallon or more per day.
Heat Exhaustion is caused by the loss of water and electrolytes through sweating, resulting in symptoms that include nausea, dizziness, thirst, weakness, vomiting, higher than normal body core temperature, heavy sweating, and decreased urine production. Treatment includes moving the victim to a cooler, shady location, removal of outer layers of clothing, fanning, placing wet materials on victim’s body, elevating feet, drinking water or better still, diluted electrolyte drinks (if the victim is conscious and can swallow), and seeking professional medical care. Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
Heat Stroke is a truly life threatening medical emergency requiring immediate intervention. It is a severe heat illness that results when body temperature exceeds 104.0 degree F. Symptoms include confusion, red, usually dry skin, headache and dizziness. Treatment requires rapidly cooling the victims body using any available resources and seeking professional medical care.
Hyponatremia is the most common type of electrolyte imbalance. Signs and symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea, vomiting, headache, memory loss, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, muscle weakness, seizures, and coma. Mild cases can be treated in the field using a weak solution of salt and water – 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a liter or quart of water, to rehydrate the victim. Severe hyponatremia cases should be evacuated to a hospital as quickly as possible.
Heat Health Tips
Drink, drink and then drink some more – water that is! Of all of the available fluids water is the best fluid to drink to keep you hydrated. Avoid alcohol, caffeinated fluids, and fluids containing sugar and, in an emergency situation, DO NOT drink urine, blood, seawater, radiator fluid, or windshield washer fluid. Drinking such fluids may affect your ability to think clearly, stimulate water loss, delay the absorption of water, and could kill you! Consuming diluted “electrolyte fluids” can be beneficial since heavy sweating flushes out salt and other minerals needed for good health. Do not take salt tablets unless directed to by your doctor.
When working or recreating outdoors take responsibility for your safety. Be prepared for an unexpected emergency and make sure you carry with you enough water to prevent dehydration. An old “desert rat” once told me (as it relates to finding water in the desert) “Sonny, if you ain’t got it with you, you ain’t got it!”
Be honest with yourself. Do you have a medical condition that might be exacerbated by strenuous activity in a hot environment? Get your doctor’s advice before you need his professional services.
Dress appropriately. Short shorts and a tank-top my be OK for sitting around the swimming pool but will not protect you in the outdoors on a hike. Cover your skin and wear a hat.
Stay in contact. At home, at work, or in the outdoors stay in contact with family, friends, and co-workers. Have a way to call for help if needed. Set up a call-in schedule so that someone will check on you if you if don’t make contact from time-to-time.
Pay attention to the weather forecast. As much as we tend to question their ability to forecast the weather, the TV meteorologists do a remarkably good job of informing us of weather conditions that might cause us harm. Have the courage to back-off in the face of impending bad weather and live to hike another day.
Remember that every activity that takes place in the human body takes place in a water environment. All of the electrical activity, the mechanical activity, and the chemical activity that makes us function efficiently must have water. When you are losing more water than you are taking in you begin to dehydrate and body systems begin to malfunction. It is easier to prevent a heat related medical condition than it is to treat it. Prevention is the name of the game.