Recognizing and preventing heatstroke

In summer, one must be aware of the risks of heatstroke and its related problems in order to prevent them.

Heat related health problems

In summer, the hot sun rays do the body and soul a world of good. However, one must be aware that excess heat and humidity can predispose a person to, and even cause, health problems. Here are some examples:

  • heat-related dermatitis
  • swelling of the extremities
  • heat cramps, and
  • exacerbation of chronic illnesses (e.g., emphysema, chronic bronchitis, heart failure)

This text specifically focuses on insolation, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.

Thermoregulation and loss of balance

The human body is equipped with certain mechanisms that maintain its internal thermal balance at roughly 37°C. A certain temperature variation can be tolerated by a healthy adult without it really affecting him/her. However, during periods of scorching or extreme heat, the body may have trouble cooling down and maintaining its temperature within a normal range. This is especially true in the presence of the following factors:

  • prolonged exposure to heat (and humidity)
  • excessive physical exertion, and
  • excessive sweating

When the body "overheats", this can lead to difficulties that are manifested by symptoms. In the worst cases, it can be life-threatening.

Insolation is caused by the sun's direct effect on the head and most often occurs in children after direct sun exposure. It is characterized by intense headaches, nausea, drowsiness, fever, burned skin, etc. Loss of consciousness is possible.

Heat exhaustion occurs following excessive electrolyte (salt) and fluid loss caused by exposure to heat over a prolonged period. This leads to decreased blood volume and can cause various symptoms: fatigue, weakness, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, insomnia, agitation, dizziness, fainting, collapsing, etc.

Heatstroke can occur when the internal body temperature rapidly increases beyond the body's control. If the body temperature reaches or goes beyond 40°C, several symptoms are possible: hot, red and dry skin, violent headaches, confusion, convulsions, fainting, coma, etc. Heatstroke is a medical emergency and the risk of death must be considered.

Risk factors

Some individuals are more vulnerable to the effects of overheating. For example, this is the case for the following people:

  • babies and young children (under age 5)
  • the elderly
  • people who work outdoors (especially in the case of physical exertion)
  • sports enthusiasts (e.g., marathon runners)
  • individuals who are ill, handicapped or with a loss of autonomy, and
  • people who consume alcohol or drugs

Caution: taking certain medications can predispose a person to heat-related illnesses. For example, this can be the case for certain antihypertensive drugs and medications used for cardiac or psychiatric problems. Ask your pharmacist for information.

Prevention

Here are some tips to prevent heat-related health problems:

  • Do not exercise when temperatures are high or humid.
  • If you do exercise under these conditions, be sure to rest often and especially, drink plenty of water (at least 6 to 8 glasses a day).
  • Choose an appropriate time to exercise such as early in the morning before temperatures rise.
  • Wear light and loose-fitting clothing.
  • Do not expose yourself excessively to the sun or to heat, whether or not you exercise.
  • If necessary, seek shelter from the heat to help decrease your body temperature.
  • Look for air-conditioned areas.
  • Take a cool shower or bath.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Get plenty of rest.

For vulnerable individuals (e.g., children, the sick or the elderly), additional measures must be considered. Ask your healthcare professional for information.

Taking charge

If you suspect that a person is suffering from insolation, heat exhaustion or heatstroke, consult a healthcare professional to confirm a diagnosis and to get adequate care. In the presence of the slightest alarming symptom or when in doubt, bring the person to the emergency room immediately. This could be a medical emergency.

Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about heat-related health problems and preventive measures.

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Recognizing and preventing heatstroke

The human body has certain defences which help it maintain its internal body temperature. Heatstroke occurs when the body "overheats", to a certain extent, and it is unable to cool down.
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