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House Calls: Heat-related illnesses

The body cools itself off by sweating. When sweating reduces or stops, heat-related illnesses occur. There are many heat-related illnesses including muscle cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat cramps are involuntary muscle spasms of the large muscles. Heat exhaustion includes profuse sweating, weakness, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and muscle cramps. Heat stroke is a life threatening illness when sweating stops. When you have a heat stroke the body temperature can exceed 106 F. There can be confusion, seizures and even a coma.

Heat exhaustion occurs when a person exercises or works in a hot environment and cannot sweat enough to cool body down. Often dehydration can occur because the person hasn’t had enough to drink to replace water by sweating. Humidity is an important factor in heat exhaustion. If humidity is too high the sweat on the skin cannot evaporate to cool the skin. Infants, young children, and elderly are at highest risk for heat exhaustion. Alcohol consumption, obesity, certain medications such as antidepressants, and people in homes without air conditioning are at risk for heat exhaustion.

As dehydration occurs, there may be some lightheadedness and fainting, especially if you stand up too quickly. Heat exhaustion can usually be treated at home. Find a cool place to relax and drink plenty or water or sports drinks. If nausea and vomiting prevents rehydration an IV may be needed.

It is important to recognize if a person stops sweating. This may lead to a heat stroke. EMS should be called immediately if you are suspicious of this condition. The affected individual should be taken to a cool area, clothes removed and cold compresses and fans should be used. If medical care is needed for heat exhaustion or stroke the doctor will do blood tests to determine your electrolyte status and to make sure you have not gone into kidney failure. IV fluids will be started immediately.

Prevention is always the key in any illness. Strenuous activities should not be done in hot or humid environments if at all possible. Take frequent breaks in a cool area, drink an adequate amount of fluids, and slow the pace of work. Monitor urine output. When the body is dehydrated it holds onto water and the urine may reduce and have a stronger smell.

Muscle cramps and heat exhaustion are very easy to recuperate from. However, heat stroke can sometimes be a life threatening illness if not caught in time. Pay close attention to what your body tells you and hydrate frequently to prevent heat-related illnesses.

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