As a primary care physician who often treats patients with heat-related illnesses, I know all too well how heatwaves create spikes in hospitalizations and deaths related to “severe nonexertional hyperthermia,” or what most people call “heatstroke.”
Heatstroke is when a person’s core body temperature rises too high—often more than 104 degrees F (40 C)—because high environmental temperatures and humidity prevent the body from cooling itself through sweating and breathing. As heatstroke develops, a patient experiences rapid heart rate, ragged breathing, dizziness, nausea, muscle cramps, and confusion. Eventually the patient may lose consciousness entirely.
Without medical intervention, heatstroke is often fatal. On average, about 658 Americans die each year from heatstroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Victims of heatstroke can be any age, but most often it strikes the elderly—particularly those over the age of 70—because our bodies’ ability to cool off declines with age. Additionally, many common medications used to control blood pressure, seizures, and psychological disorders reduce a person’s ability to regulate temperature. Those risks increase even more when an elderly person doesn’t have awareness of a dangerous heatwave, doesn’t have working air conditioning in their home, and doesn’t have anyone to check on them.
Here are three tips on how to prevent this potentially deadly condition:
In hotter weather, drink more water and avoid sugary drinks and alcohol. If your doctor has limited your daily water intake because of heart failure or another diagnosis, stay in communication with them during a heatwave to avoid medical complications.
Don’t exercise during the hottest hours of the day—typically between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.—and expect longer recovery time after exercise when heat and humidity are elevated.
Find a Cool Environment
If you don’t have an air-conditioned home or car, try:
- wearing light, breathable clothing
- avoiding time in direct sunlight
- spraying yourself with water and sitting in front of a fan
- taking a cool bath or shower
- placing a cold pack on your neck, armpit, or head
- contacting your local health department about local heat-relief shelters
Fans can help, but not by lowering the air temperature. Fans cause air movement over the skin, resulting in the evaporation of sweat, which lowers body temperature. Even though fans are useful, air conditioning is better in high humidity because it produces drier air that allows your body to cool itself more readily.
In a heatwave, take time to check in with your elderly neighbors, family, and friends to make sure they have the means to stay cool. If you encounter someone having symptoms of heatstroke, call 911 to get them to an emergency room for evaluation and treatment.
Heatwaves don’t heave to lead to heatstroke if you learn what to do. Just stay cool, rest, and stay hydrated. Simple, right?
is a clinical associate professor of family medicine at Texas A&M University. This article was first published on The Conversation.