Summer Fun - Summer Safety Avoiding Heat Related Injuries
By Jack H. Olender, Esq.
This article was published in The Washington Afro-American.
From the shady tree-lined terraces of upper Northwest through the opened-hydrant streets of Southeast, to Rehoboth, Bethany and back, anyone who has ever spent a summer in the Washington metropolitan area knows first-hand the stifling, overwhelming, mind numbing heat and humidity that engulfs the region this time of year: the temps in April and May that approach the mid-90's, followed by the record-breaking heat-waves in July, August and September that steadily climb into the low-100's with heat indexes 5 to 10 degrees higher.
While summer conjures up the promise of parks, picnics, and lazy boating outings, it also camouflages the threat of a hidden menace, heat related injuries, which we quite often relegate to those society considers most vulnerable, our senior citizens. While the risk is highest among the elderly, heat-related exhaustion, stroke and death, under the right conditions, can affect healthy people of any age. Heat related illnesses occur when the body gains heat faster than it can dispose of it, and the illnesses can be rapidly brought on by exertion in poor atmospheric conditions. Any extended period of time spent in above average air temperatures can overwhelm the body's ability to cool itself and bring on the following conditions:
* Heat cramps usually pop up after invigorating exercise and profuse perspiration and occur most commonly in the abdomen, legs and thighs or in those areas of the body used in the activity. Generally, heat cramps can be alleviated by resting in a cool area, and drinking lots of fluids.
* Heat exhaustion is the body's response to a loss of water and electrolyte balance. It begins with the accumulation of large quantities of blood in the skin in the body's attempt to increase its cooling efficiency. One of the first symptoms of heat exhaustion is a body temperature higher than usual, accompanied by nausea, paleness, rapid heartbeat, faintness, and cold moist, sweaty skin. If you suspect someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, move the person to a cool area promptly and give them cool fluids (always non-alcoholic) to drink. Keep their legs slightly elevated, and loosen any tight clothing. Use cold compresses, especially to the neck and head, but never use an alcohol rub. Do not administer any medication to lower temperature. Heat exhaustion is less dangerous than heat stroke, but it can quickly progress to heat stroke if not treated properly.
* Heat stroke is not only dangerous, but life-threatening and is generally precipitated by heat exhaustion, though not always. It is caused by the body's inability to sweat, while continuing to overheat. Any temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit is suspect and should be investigated immediately.
Signs of heat stroke are hot, dry skin with no sweat, confusion, throbbing headache, rapid heartbeat and/or unconsciousness. Emergency help should be gotten immediately. Until help arrives, the main point to remember when encountering someone suspected of heat stroke is to instantly begin treatment, which should first and foremost consist of cooling the person down by whatever means available. Heat stroke deaths are directly related to the victim's body temperature and length of time within which the person stays hyperthermic. If at all possible, cooling down should be done within the first thirty minutes (the recommended time frame for survival).
Move the person to a cool area, loosen or remove any tight clothing and apply cold compresses, towels, or spray mist, water from a garden hose, whatever. If available, wrap the person in a cool wet sheet. Do not use an alcohol rub, and do not try to force liquids into the victim's mouth as this presents a danger of choking. Do not place a pillow under the victim's head as this may cause the airway to become blocked.
Keep the person as calm as possible (stroking their temple, calm reassuring words) until help arrives.
We do ourselves and others a favor when we follow strict safety measures that reduce our chances of heat cramps, exhaustion or stroke.
Following are tips on how to "beat-the-heat" and enjoy a sun-filled summer without succumbing to those natural rays:
1) Dress accordingly. Cool, light colors reflect the sun and lightweight, loose-fitting clothing tends not to trap heat next to the body. Wear a hat or carry an umbrella to protect yourself on scorching days. Better safe than sorry.
2) Try to plan activities either in the early morning or late afternoon when the temperature has dropped somewhat. If at all possible, rest frequently in a shady protected area.
3) Fluids, fluids, and more fluids. Carry plenty of water, juice or sports drinks with you and drink them frequently, even when not thirsty. This replenishes the natural fluids lost when the body sweats. Avoid drinks with alcohol and caffeine, which make the heat's affect on the body worse.
4) Suntan lotion is a must. Whether you're planning on being out of doors for hours at a time or for less than 30 minutes, suntan lotion should become part of your daily routine. Check the label to make sure your lotion contains a SPF 15 or higher to adequately protect yourself. A nasty sunburn affects your body's ability to cool itself and causes a loss of body fluids, as well as damaging the skin.
5) Eat smaller meals. Avoid heavy, starchy foods that tend to weigh you down and make you sluggish, and foods high in protein which increases metabolic heat. Hot foods add heat to your body.
6) Summer is the season of bees, flying, stinging insects, and elevated levels of grass pollens. Whether defending against stingers and pincers or dealing with polluted air, allergies abound.
Stings and bites can trigger more than an allergic reaction; they can be life-threatening and fatal. Epinephrine is the most common antidote used today for insect stings.
High temperatures, coupled with muggy humidity and air pollutants, can instigate a devastating reaction in people with a history of allergies. Weather reports daily carry the pollution control count report and give special warnings on days when the air quality is unacceptable. These reports should be listened to before going on any outing that could compromise one's health.
People who know their specific allergies should always have medication on hand as an antidote.
7) Washington's streets are dotted with those brave jogging souls who venture out during their lunch hour in steaming heat to work off those calories. Try changing your schedule to an early morning or late day jog. Always bring along with you an ample supply of juice, water or sports drink to replenish lost fluids and minerals and always, always, stop for a break should you begin to feel light-headed. Never push your body in heat beyond its endurance.
8) Hikers, rock climbers, etc. should use plain old common sense - the buddy system. When exposed to the heat for hours at a time, have someone monitor your condition and keep track of your buddy's. Heat-induced illnesses can cause confusion and temporary mental impairment, not to mention unconsciousness. Never venture out alone.
9) Lastly, do those at greatest risk a favor by checking on them and monitoring their activities. Especially watch out for those who are 65 years of age or older, or up to the age of five. The elderly and young children are vulnerable because of their sensitivity to the elements and their dependence on others. Also, overweight people can be prone to heat illnesses because they retain more body heat.
Let's keep these safety tips in mind as we have a sun-filled summer!
Useful sources on this subject are the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the National Center for Environmental Health), the Mayo Clinic, and Kool Ties, "Heat and First Aid."