YHL UNIVERSITY

Heat Related Illnesses and How You Can Avoid Them

A man stands under a hot sun, he is at risk of developing heat stroke.

Heat related illnesses occur when your body’s internal temperature gets too high. The cause is often tied to being in a hot environment (whether indoors or outdoors), or vigorous exercise. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion can be extremely serious, and even fatal. Heat rash and heat cramps are milder ailments, though should also be taken seriously.

How does my body regulate temperature?

When your body is in a hot environment, it regulates temperature by sweating. As the moisture of sweat on your skin evaporates, it creates a cooling effect. When an environment is humid, it makes sweating to cool off less effective. In these situations, it is especially important to seek other ways of cooling off.

Heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a serious medical condition that occurs when your body gets too hot and can’t cool down. A normal body temperature for adults is about 98–99 degrees, and heat stroke can become dangerous when your temperature rises to about 103­­–104 degrees, or above. Heat stroke is often caused by vigorous exercise, being in a hot environment, being dehydrated, or a combination of these factors. For example, athletes that perform for long periods of time in hot weather conditions are often susceptible to heat stroke. Aside from having a high body temperature, there are other symptoms that often accompany heat stroke. Some of these include rapid breathing, confusion or delirium, nausea of vomiting, and red or flushed skin. 

What to do if you have heat stroke.

Heat stroke can be very dangerous and requires treatment immediately. While seeking medical help, you can also try to cool off with water, fans, ice packs, or any other means available.

Heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion can occur when your body becomes too low in fluids, or to low in salts. It is most frequently caused by excessive sweating in hotter temperatures. Some of the telltale signs of heat exhaustion include muscle cramps, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, and confusion. Dark coloured urine can also point to heat exhaustion as it is a clear sign of dehydration.

What to do if you have heat exhaustion.

Though heat exhaustion is not as serious a concern as heat stroke, treatment is similar. In more severe cases, you may need medical help. Otherwise, the best way to recover is to rehydrate and cool off as soon as possible. Rehydrating with a sports drink or other that will provide your body with salts is also a good idea.

Heat rash.

Heat rash is a condition that can affect your skin in hotter environments. It happens when pores in your skin become clogged and your body is unable to expel sweat. This is especially prone to happen when you’re wearing tight clothing that rubs against your skin. It can also be caused by skin rubbing together (such as inner thighs) in hotter weather. A milder form of heat rash, miliaria crystallina often looks like bumps filled with clear fluid on your skin. These may burst, but otherwise there is no sensation that accompanies them. A more serious form of heat rash where sweat is trapped deeper in your skin is called miliaria rubra. This is similar in appearance, but may also itch, become inflamed, or be sore. 

What to do if you have heat rash.

If your heat rash isn’t accompanied by other symptoms, it will likely resolve on its own. Wear looser clothing that allows your skin to breathe, and try to avoid hot and humid environments. If you have excessive discomfort, fever, or any other unusual symptoms, consult a medical professional.

Heat cramps.

Heat cramps are painful cramps that affect your muscles. They often occur during excessive exercise in hotter environments. Though the exact reason for heat cramps is unknown, it is widely believed that electrolytes play a role. Electrolytes are essential for your muscle functioning, and they can become depleted through excessive sweating.

What to do if you have heat cramps.

If you develop heat cramps, it’s important to rest. You also need to rehydrate your body, and replace missing electrolytes and salts lost through sweating. The easiest way to do this is through consuming a sports drink, which rehydrates you and boosts your electrolytes and salts.   

How can I avoid heat-related illnesses?

Stay hydrated.

If your body is lacking in hydration, this puts you more at risk for heat related illnesses. Because you lose more fluids in hot environments through sweating, you need to drink more than you normally would to replace them. It’s important to drink frequently in these situations, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Rather than drinking a lot of water all at once, it’s a good idea to drink 2-3 glasses of water per hour in extremely hot situations.

Watch your electrolytes.

When you sweat excessively or lose a large amount of body fluid in a short amount of time, it affects your electrolyte levels. Electrolytes are chemicals in the body that conduct electricity. They are essential for many bodily functions including muscle contraction. Two electrolytes that are lost by excessive sweating are sodium and potassium. To prevent an imbalance or lack of electrolytes, you can drink sports beverages which rehydrate you as well as boost electrolyte levels.

Avoid alcoholic beverages.

Alcoholic beverages have a diuretic effect on the body, meaning they cause you to become more dehydrated. This happens because your body eliminates fluids at a faster rate than usual to remove alcohol from your blood system. If you’re in a situation where you are already at risk of becoming dehydrated, drinking alcoholic beverages can make things worse.

If you’re working or exercising, take regular breaks.

It’s a good idea to let your body rest and recover if you’re working or exercising in excessive heat. Rest out of direct sunlight, in a cool place if possible. You can also take the time to drink fluids and rehydrate.

Stay sun-safe.

There are a few different ways to stay sun-safe if you’re outside during the hotter months. If possible, avoid being outside during the hottest hours of the day. This depends on the season and where you are located, but generally between 10am and 2pm is the time when the temperature is most elevated. Another important sun safety measure is to wear sunscreen, and reapply often. Finally, if you’re outside in the sun for an extended amount of time, wear a wide-brimmed hat and loose, light clothing.

The bottom line.

Should you develop a heat-related illness, be sure to monitor it closely and seek medical attention if necessary. Heat related illnesses can be mild or serious, but using the information above, you can lessen your risk of developing them.

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