Heat-related injuries, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, are problems that occur when the body's cooling system is overloaded.
Texas was in the grip of a severe heat wave in August just as students were heading back to school after summer break. The extreme heat forced schools around the state to take action. Schools in Plano, for example, kept their children inside for recess on very hot days. In Irving, the football coach cut short afternoon practices and had the players take extra water breaks. In Arlington, some football scrimmages were canceled, and others were scheduled after 7 pm.
School officials were trying to prevent heat-related injuries, which are health problems that occur when the body's cooling system is overloaded. The body normally cools itself by sweating. Under some conditions, though, this system can start to fail. In such cases, a person's body temperature may rise quickly. Very high body temperatures can damage the brain and other vital organs.
Heat-related injuries are divided into three types:
Several factors affect the body's ability to cool itself during very hot weather. One of the main ways the body cools itself is by sweating. The evaporation of sweat from the skin cools the body. When humidity (the amount of moisture in the air) is high, sweat does not evaporate from the skin. Other factors that can limit the body's ability to control its temperature include fever, heart disease, sunburn, alcohol or drug use, and dehydration, which is excessive loss of water from the body due to illness or not drinking enough liquids.
People at high risk of heat-related injuries include:
Heat cramps usually occur during heavy activity. Medical professionals advise a person experiencing heat cramps to stop his or her activity, sit quietly in a cool place, and sip water, clear juice, or a sports drink. Firm pressure on or a gentle massage of the muscles will help to relieve the muscle cramps. Even after the cramps have disappeared, the individual should avoid returning to heavy exercise for a few hours, because this level of activity might lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. An individual whose cramps have not gone away within an hour should call a doctor.
Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency, and onlookers should summon medical help right away. While waiting for assistance, caregivers can help the person cool off by getting her or him out of the sun and fanning the patient or by moving the person into an air-conditioned room. There, the person should lie down and remove clothing. Applying cool, wet cloths, or putting the person in a cool bath or shower will help. If the humidity is low, another solution is to wrap the person in a cool, wet sheet. If the person is outside, spraying the person lightly with a garden hose can be effective. Those providing first aid should take the person's temperature regularly and continue the cooling efforts until the person's temperature drops to 101°F to 102°F (38°C). Sometimes the person's muscles may start to twitch wildly as a result of heat stroke. If this happens, the caregiver's job is to keep the person from getting hurt. The caregiver should not, however, put anything in the person's mouth or give anything to the person to drink. If vomiting occurs, the caregiver should keep the airway open by turning the person onto his or her side.
The best ways to prevent heat-related injuries are to keep cool and use common sense. The following tips may help on hot summer days:
See also Cold-Related Injuries • Fever • Fluid and Electrolyte Disorders
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