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Your body and the heat: Understanding heat illness

heat stroke water

We’ve been experiencing something of a heat wave here in Kansas. The biggest thing people need to realize when high temperatures hit is that heat can be dangerous. Many people will go outside and participate in sports or exert themselves on hot days. Over exerting yourself in the heat can be dangerous so it’s important to be cognizant of your well-being.

Those most at risk in the heat are infants and toddlers as well as the elderly. It’s important to take extra precautions with these populations and limit the time they spent outdoors in extreme temperatures.

If you know you are going to be outside for a long period of time, it’s good to think ahead. Consider whether you will have access to drinking water, shade or air conditioning if you become overheated. It’s also a good idea to let others know that you will be out in the heat and where you will be going in case problems arise.

In terms of how long it’s safe to be out in the heat, it’s hard to put a certain time limit on it. It depends on how much the person is exerting themselves, how well hydrated they are, and even what their fitness level is.

If you do start to feel overheated, there are some things you should do immediately: Get into an air conditioned environment and start drinking fluids.

It’s a good idea to be familiar with the stages of heat illness:

  • Heat cramps. This typically occurs when excessive sweating causes a shortage of salt in the body.
  • Heat exhaustion. The body begins to become overheated and dehydrated. Symptoms may include pale, clammy skin and increased heart rate. If you should start to feel fatigued, dizzy or nauseous, it’s important to get into an air conditioned environment and start drinking fluids.
  • Heat stroke. This occurs when your body’s cooling mechanisms are unable to keep your body temperature at a normal level. This is the most serious type of heat illness and requires immediate medical attention.

Be sure to stay hydrated, wear sunscreen and have access to air conditioning in case the heat becomes an issue.

By planning ahead, you and your family can still enjoy time outside despite the high temperatures.

About Howard Chang MD

Howard Chang, MD, is the medical director of the Emergency Department at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis.