Red Cross Central Illinois Chapter

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Information for Heat-Related Illness

Be Summer Smart

Summertime means fun under the sun. But when the mercury rises, be careful not to let a heat-related illness spoil the day.

What causes heat-related illness?

Normally, the body is efficient at keeping itself cool -- perspiring and letting heat escape through the skin. The evaporation of sweat cools the skin. But if the body cannot cool itself well enough, people can become ill.

Indeed, when temperatures climb over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, people become susceptible to heat-related illness -- especially young children and the elderly. Exposure can cause serious injury or, in rare cases, death, if left unattended.

Know the terms

Heat wave: More than 48 hours of high heat (90 degrees F or higher) and high humidity (80 percent relative humidity or higher) are expected.
Heat index: A number in degrees Fahrenheit that tells how hot it really feels with the heat and humidity. Exposure to full sunshine can increase the heat index by 15 degrees F.
Heat cramps: Heat cramps are muscular pains and spasms due to heavy exertion. They usually involve the abdominal muscles or the legs. It is thought that the loss of water and salt from heavy sweating causes cramps.
Heat exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is less dangerous than heat stroke. It typically occurs when people exercise heavily or work in a warm, humid place where body fluids are lost through heavy sweating. Fluid loss causes blood flow to decrease in the vital organs, resulting in a form of shock. With heat exhaustion, sweat does not evaporate as it should, possibly because of high humidity or too many layers of clothing. As a result, the body is not cooled properly.
Heat stroke: Also known as sunstroke, heat stroke is life-threatening. The victim’s temperature control system, which produces sweating to cool the body, stops working. The body temperature can rise so high that brain damage and death may result if the body is not cooled quickly.

Stay cool

  • Dress for the heat. Wear a hat, and breathable, moisture-wicking, light-colored clothing. Light colors will reflect away some of the sun's energy.
  • Stay hydrated. Carry water or juice with you, and remember to intake fluids, even if you do not feel thirsty. Water is the safest liquid to drink during heat emergencies.
  • Eat small meals, and eat more frequently.
  • Slow down. If you must do strenuous activity, do it during the coolest parts of the day, generally before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m.

Avoid ...

  • Drinks with alcohol or caffeine in them. They can make you feel good briefly, but make the heat’s effects on your body worse. This is especially true about beer, which dehydrates the body.
  • Foods that are high in protein, which increase metabolic heat.
  • Salt tablets, unless directed to do so by a physician.

Take special care

People at higher risk for heat-related illness should take extra care to avoid a problem by taking breaks from activity, seeking a cool place, and drinking at least eight glasses of water a day or more if exercising or working strenuously. This includes:

  • People working or exercise outdoors
  • The elderly and young children
  • Those with circulation or breathing problems
  • People who have ingested alcohol
  • People taking certain medications or who have medical conditions that may cause poor blood circulation or reduced ability to tolerate heat. Discuss these concerns with a physician.

Recognize the danger signs, and know how to help

Heat-related illnesses are progressive conditions.

First stage (heat cramps)

Symptoms of first-stage heat illness vary, but typically include muscle cramps.

What to do:

If caring for a person suffering cramps, have him or her stop any activity and rest. If the person is fully awake and alert, have him/her drink small amounts of cool water or an electrolyte sports drink.

Gently stretch the cramped muscle, hold the stretch for about 20 seconds, then gently massage the muscle. Repeat these steps if necessary. If the victim has no other signals of heat-related illness, allow the person to resume activity after cramps stop.

Second-stage (heat exhaustion)

Symptoms include:

  • Cool, clammy, pale skin (the skin may be red right after physical activity)
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Skin may or may not feel hot to the touch
What to do:

Get the person to a cooler place and have him or her rest in a comfortable position. Give a half glass of cool water every 15 minutes. Do not let him or her drink too quickly. Do not give liquids with alcohol or caffeine in them, as they can make conditions worse. Remove or loosen tight clothing and apply cool, wet cloths such as towels or wet sheets.

Late-stage (heat stroke)

Symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Rapid pulse
  • Decreased alertness level
  • Loss of consciousness
  • High temperature
  • Skin may be moist, or the victim may stop sweating and the skin may be red, hot and dry.
What to do:

Late stage heat-related illness is very serious and can be life-threatening. Call 911 immediately. Move the person to a cooler place. Quickly cool the body. Wrap wet sheets around the body and fan it.
If you have ice packs or cold packs, wrap them in a cloth and place them on each of the victim’s wrists and ankles, in the armpits and on the neck to cool the large blood vessels. (Do NOT use rubbing alcohol, as it closes the skin’s pores and prevents heat loss.)
Watch for signals of breathing problems and make sure the airway is clear. Keep the person lying down.

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