Summer officially kicked off on Friday, and with it, the chance of heat-related illnesses will increase as temperatures climb over the next couple months.
There are different levels of heat-related illnesses, according to local medical professionals, with heat exhaustion and heat stroke being the two main categories.
“Heat exhaustion is considered the beginning stages of heat-related illnesses,” said Dr. Bradley Brocious, of Geisinger Medical Center. “It can start as heat cramps as the body starts to lose excessive amounts of fluids and salts, along with minerals such as magnesium.”
The loss of those fluids and minerals comes via the inevitable summertime prevalence of sweating.
“Evaporative cooling is the body’s primary mechanism of heat loss in a hot environment,” said Jonathan Demchak, PA-C, with Evangelical Community Hospital. “But this process becomes ineffective around a relative humidity of 75 percent.”
There can be a variety of symptoms for heat exhaustion, according to Erin Zaharick, a clinician in the emergency room at UPMC Susquehanna Sunbury.
“The body will likely sweating a lot, and there can be a headache and the person can be a little extra cranky,” she said. “It can feel like the heart is beating too fast, there can be an increase in thirstiness and the person may feel like passing out.”
Brocious added that symptoms such as abdominal pain or cramping can accompany heat exhaustion, and that a response to this condition is to get the person cooled down as efficiently as possible.
“You’ll want to remove the person from the sun and get them to a cool place,” he said. “You can spray down with lukewarm water and use a fan to increase evaporative cooling.”
There are a few misconceptions about first aid for heat exhaustion, Brocious warned.
“Many people think you should remove clothing, but that can be the wrong thing to do in the direct sun,” he said. “You also don’t want to use ice-cold water to attempt to cool the person, because that can interfere with the blood flow and cause additional issues.”
Fluid intake is critical during this part of the treatment, as well, for those with heat exhaustion, as a way to replace fluids lost during sweating.
“Water is the gold standard for rehydration, but you can also use electrolyte-based drinks that are low in sugar to help offset loss of minerals,” Brocious said.
“Avoid sugary and alcoholic drinks, as these can lead to additional fluid loss from the body,” Demchak said.
“Overly cold drinks and those with caffeine should also be avoided,” Brocious added.
Heat stroke is a much more severe heat-related illness that can require prompt medical attention.
“When the body fails to regulate the core temperature, sweating can stop and the body can’t handle the excess heat,” said Zaharick. “When there is a body temperature of 103 or higher, that can be a sign of heat stroke, along with hot red and dry skin, a fast pulse, confusion, headaches and the patient may lose consciousness.”
Another sign of heat stroke, according to Brocious, involves impaired mental faculties.
“Look for confusion — these patients can be disoriented and off balance,” he said. “Coordination can be off what it should be.”
According to Demchak, heat strokes can be broken down into two categories.
“When we think about classic heat stroke, we think about folks with chronic medical conditions that impair the body’s ability to thermoregulate and cool itself. These are the folks at the extremes of age, those with obesity, cardiovascular or neurological or psychiatric disorders as well as those on recreational drugs. Also, certain medications can increase your risk for non-exertional heat stroke,” he said. “On the other hand, exertional heat stroke typically occurs in young, otherwise healthy folks. Typically, this involves individuals participating in strenuous exercise and high temperature and humidity settings.”
The need for treatment is much more serious.
“These are the ones you want to get to the emergency room immediately,” said Lynn Taggart, unit director for the emergency department at UPMC Susquehanna Sunbury. “Thankfully we don’t see these cases as much as those with heat stroke.”
Efficient cooling is also recommended with heat stroke patients while waiting for emergency services or getting the person to the doctor, but one major difference in treatment between heat exhaustion and heat stroke patients, according to Zaharick, involves fluid intake.
“You definitely don’t want to give the person anything to drink,” she said. “With heat stroke, there is an increased chance of losing consciousness and introducing a drink could lead to choking.”
Another heat-related medical issue some people experience involve heat rashes, according to Demchak.
“There are several names for heat rashes, including ‘prickly heat’ and ‘sweat rash,’” he said. “These types of rashes are caused by blockage within the eccrine sweat ducts. Heat rash more commonly occurs in the skin folds and areas of friction with clothing. Typically, the face, palms and soles are spared in both children and adults.”
Ultimately, preventing any heat-related illness can be a matter of being proactive.
“Plan your activities to avoid the hottest parts of the day, which is usually 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” said Brocious. “It is also a good idea to wear light-colored clothing and definitely remember to use sun protection.”