What Are Heat-Related Illnesses and How Can You Protect Yourself?

Excessive heat is not uncommon; it happens pretty much every year. 

But just because it’s a common occurrence doesn’t mean high temperatures are normal or good for us. 

Hot weather is not about fun and games; it points to aggravated climate change.

Rising temperatures each summer affect thousands of people who develop heat-related illnesses. 

Scroll down to see what they are and what to do about them.

How do high temperatures affect the body?

High temperatures, just like cold, affect the body and its physiological processes in many ways. 

The primary concern is the change in the body’s core temperature beyond a healthy or normal range. 

High temperatures often also come with high relative humidity. High humidity makes things worse.

You see, high body temperature in excessive heat events link to increased respiratory and heart rates. 

In extreme cases, it can cause damage to the heart, brain, lungs, liver, and kidneys. 

In response to extreme temperatures, blood vessels near the skin dilate. 

This reaction could be problematic for men and women with cardiovascular diseases. Additionally, kidneys bear too much stress and may fail.

High temperatures i.e. heat waves have the potential to aggravate various chronic illnesses.

Heat exposure can lead to heat illnesses, severe dehydration, thrombogenesis (blood clots), and cerebrovascular accidents.

Although we’re going to discuss heat-related illnesses more thoroughly below, it’s worth mentioning high temperatures can cause heatstroke where the body temperature rises quickly but the sweating mechanism fails. 

As a result, the body can’t cool down. High temperatures can also have a negative impact on body fluid levels.

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Who is at greater risk from extreme heat?

Generally speaking, everyone can suffer from the consequences of extreme heat, but some people are more vulnerable than others. 

Older adults and those with chronic conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease are more likely to have heat illness. 

Respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease are also risk factors because heat contributes to the buildup of harmful air pollutants. 

People who are taking medications such as diuretics are also at a greater risk of extreme heat. 

Basically, all medications that affect the body’s ability to hold onto water or sweat make a person more vulnerable to heat illness.

Risk factors also include:

  • Physical work outside and occupations that require it
  • Insufficient liquid intake
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Poor fitness levels

What is heat-related illness?

Simply put, the term heat-related illness refers to the illnesses caused by exposure to high temperatures. 

The human body can cool off, but this function has its limits. 

In the presence of high temperatures i.e. heatwave, the body can overheat. 

As the body overheats, various symptoms occur, ranging from headaches to vomiting and muscle cramps.

What are the types of heat illnesses?

Heat illness is not a single disease but refers to several conditions induced by high air temperature. 

Below, we discuss seven different heat disorders.

Heat stress

Heat stress happens when the body is unable to get rid of excess heat. 

In turn, heart rate increases, and the core temperature of the body rises. 

It can lead to other, more serious heat illnesses if left unmanaged properly. 

Heat stress term is used to refer to heat-related illnesses in general.

Heatstroke

Heatstroke is a condition induced by overheating of the body due to exposure to physical exertion in high temperatures e.g. heatwave. 

In fact, heatstroke is the most severe form of heat-related illness, and it usually occurs when the body temperature reaches at least 104°F (40°C). 

Emergency treatment is necessary for people who experience heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a condition that develops when the body is dehydrated and thereby unable to control internal temperature. 

It is more serious than heat cramps but less severe than heatstroke. 

But, if not appropriately treated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition. 

Like other heat-related illnesses, heat exhaustion is preventable.

Heat rash

Also known as prickly heat, heat rash is a condition marked by the formation of an itchy rash of small and raised spots. 

It develops when blocked pores or sweat ducts trap perspiration under the skin. 

While it usually affects newborns, adults can have heat rash as well. The condition usually clears out on its own. 

Heat cramps

Heat cramps are involuntary and painful spasms that occur during strenuous physical activities in hot temperatures. 

Spasms associated with heat cramps are usually more painful and last longer than “regular” leg cramps. 

In most cases, heat cramps affect calves, arms, back, and abdominal walls, but they can also occur elsewhere in the body too.

Heat syncope

Heat syncope, or fainting, is a mild form of heat-related illness, and it happens due to physical exertion in hot temperatures. 

Basically, heat syncope occurs when blood vessels dilate as the body tries to cool itself. 

Dilation of blood vessels can be to such an extent that blood flow to the brain is reduced.

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis happens when heat stress in combination with prolonged physical exertion causes muscles to break down, rupture, and even die. 

With the death of muscle tissue, large proteins and electrolytes reach the bloodstream and cause kidney damage and irregular heart rhythm. 

Symptoms of heat-related illnesses

As mentioned above, heat-related illnesses are preventable. 

Understanding all signs and symptoms is very important. 

Below you can see how different heat-related illnesses manifest themselves. 

Heatstroke

  • High body temperature
  • Headache
  • Racing heart rate
  • Altered behavior or mental state e.g. confusion, agitation, irritability, slurred speech
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid breathing
  • Skin hot and dry to the touch
  • Losing consciousness (in some cases)

Heat exhaustion

  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Heavy sweating
  • Low blood pressure upon standing
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Moist, cool skin with goosebumps in heat
  • Fatigue

Heat rash

  • Small blisters looking like pimples

Heat cramps

  • Heavy sweating during a workout
  • Muscle spasms and pain

Diagnosis

In most cases, it is apparent to doctors if a patient has heatstroke or heat exhaustion. 

They may order laboratory tests to confirm the diagnosis. 

These include checking rectal temperature, urine test, blood test, muscle function tests, X-rays, or other imaging tests. 

Once the condition is diagnosed, the doctor recommends proper treatment.

Complications and Risks of Heat Illnesses

Heat illnesses should not be overlooked. 

Even milder forms of heat illnesses can cause serious problems if you don’t treat them adequately. 

For example, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which requires immediate medical attention. 

Heatstroke can also cause various complications, including vital organ damage and heat-related deaths. 

As mentioned above, heat illnesses can also worsen existing chronic conditions. 

Treatment

Mild heat illnesses such as heat cramps and heat rash are relatively easy to treat, and you can do it at home. 

That said, if symptoms persist or you experience heat stroke or heat exhaustion, you will need to go to the emergency room. 

The specific treatment depends on the type of heat illness.

Treating at home

To treat heat rash, you will need to go somewhere cool indoors, gently dry off your skin, and put cold compresses. 

Avoid using products that clog pores (ointments, creams, baby powders). 

Consult a healthcare provider if symptoms don’t go away. 

On the other hand, the most practical way to treat heat cramps is to rest and drink water.

If you have heat exhaustion, you will need to get inside or in a shaded, cool area. 

Sip on cold water and apply cold cloths onto your skin. 

Stand near a fan and spray yourself with mist. You should also call 911 or go to ER.

Medical Treatment

People with symptoms of heatstroke need to leave the hot area immediately and either call 911 or go to ER. 

Of course, it’s always better to have someone take them to ER rather than driving on their own. 

A person with heat stroke needs to get medical treatment 30 minutes after symptoms appear. 

They should not drink water or any fluid. 

It’s essential to elevate your feet, loosen or remove clothes, and apply cold compresses or spray skin with water.

Heat exhaustion/stroke should not be underestimated, and if you experience symptoms of these heat illnesses, you need medical assistance.

Medical treatment for heatstroke revolves around cooling the body to a normal temperature to prevent or decrease damage to the vital organs and brain. 

Healthcare professionals may immerse a patient into cold water, wrap a patient in cooling blankets or ice, and give medications to stop shivering (because it increases body temperature). 

Additionally, a healthcare provider may suggest an evaporation method to bring the patient’s temperature down if cold immersion therapy is not available. 

This method includes misting cool water on the body while warm air is fanned over the patient. As a result, water evaporates and cools the skin.

The abovementioned medical treatments for heatstroke may also serve to manage heat exhaustion. 

How can you keep yourself and others safe during heatwaves?

The heatwave is not to be ignored, especially if you (or someone you know) are at a higher risk of developing a heat-related illness. 

Prolonged summer heatwave with excessive humidity is also a problem.

Check Air Quality Index and Track Extreme Heat

Since warmer temperatures mean higher ozone levels, you should check the Air Quality Index published by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Checking air quality is particularly useful if you plan outdoor summer activities and have asthma or another lung disease. 

You should also check for excessive heat warnings and look out for heat advisories.

Another useful thing to do is to track extreme heat in your area using CDC’s tracker

Why track extreme heat index, you wonder? 

Well, you can use the information to respond to heatwaves more adequately, see who’s at risk, or how heatwaves can affect your county.

Air Conditioned Areas

Heatwaves require a proactive approach to protect yourself and your loved ones. 

You may want to stay in air-conditioned areas with cool air as much as you can. A cooling center is also an option.

During extreme heat, avoid going out between 10 am and 6 pm unless you really have to. 

Additionally, you should strive not to go directly from a room with an air conditioner outside. 

The difference in temperatures can be too high and potentially dangerous. 

Stay hydrated

Throughout the day, make sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water. 

Encourage your loved ones to stay hydrated too. 

An extreme heat event requires proper care for your and someone else’s health.

Outdoor activities are important and even more so in summer. But you need to practice caution with planning. 

Don’t plan summer activities at the time of day when the heat is at its worst. 

Additionally, everyone should wear loose, light-colored, and lightweight clothes. 

Apply sunscreen before going out. 

A cool shower can promote relaxation and re-energize you. 

Check local news or set up alerts for health and weather updates. It’s also helpful to check up on your neighbors. 

You must never leave your children or pets in cars. 

What other steps can you take?

There’s a lot every single person can do to tackle this problem. 

Caring for the environment is a great way to contribute to solving this problem in the long run. 

We can work to reduce traffic congestion or make our cities greener. 

You can also conserve energy at home. 

The more we care for our environment, the better it gets. 

Also, you can ensure there’s a lot of shade around your house, avoid going out, and plant trees. 

Conclusion

Heat-related illnesses are often misunderstood. 

They can be deadly if we do not react adequately. 

Stay out of the sun and avoid physical work during the hottest time of day to protect your life. 

Explore More

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Sources

  1. Seltenrich N. Between Extremes: Health Effects of Heat and Cold. Environ Health Perspect. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4629728/ 
  2. Air Now. Get air quality data where you live. Available: https://www.airnow.gov/
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heat & Health Tracker. Available: https://ephtracking.cdc.gov/Applications/heatTracker/

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