Texans know a thing or two about heat, but it's only July, and we're already experiencing extreme temperatures. Some of the hottest months of the year are still ahead. Extreme heat can take a toll on your health faster than you realize.
It's important to be aware of how the heat affects your body when working or playing in extreme conditions. Without taking the proper precautions, your body could experience a heat stress condition, like exhaustion or heat stroke.
Heat stress is a condition that occurs when the body's temperature regulation mechanisms are overwhelmed by excessive heat. It can result from exposure to high temperatures, particularly when combined with high humidity, intense physical activity, or inadequate hydration.
While the body normally cools itself by sweating, during extreme heat, this might not be enough. If a person's body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down, it can cause damage to the brain or other vital organs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older adults, the very young, athletes, outdoor workers, pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions are at the highest risk of experiencing heat stress. They offer specific tips to protect those vulnerable populations here.
Prevention begins by balancing outdoor activity with actions that help the body cool itself to prevent a heat-related illness. The CDC suggests the following:
- Wear appropriate clothing
- Schedule outdoor activities carefully
- Pace yourself
- Wear sunscreen. SPF 15 or higher
- Do not leave children or pets in cars
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Stay away from very sugary or alcoholic drinks
- Replace salt and minerals with a sports drink
- Check local weather updates
- Know the signs
- Monitor those at high risk
Early symptoms of heat stress include fatigue, excessive sweating, thirst, headache, dizziness, muscle cramps, and nausea. As heat stress progresses, more severe symptoms can develop, including confusion, fainting, rapid heartbeat, and even loss of consciousness.
- Heat Cramps: Heat cramps are painful muscle contractions that usually occur during or after intense physical activity in high temperatures. They are caused by the loss of electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium) through sweating.
- Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is a more serious condition resulting from prolonged exposure to heat and inadequate fluid replacement. Symptoms may include heavy sweating, weakness, rapid pulse, low blood pressure, cool and moist skin, nausea, and headache.
- Heatstroke: Heatstroke is the most severe form of heat-related illness and is a medical emergency. It can occur when the body's temperature regulation fails, and the core body temperature rises above 104°F (40°C). Heatstroke symptoms include a high body temperature, altered mental state or behavior, confusion, seizures, rapid breathing, and a rapid, strong pulse. Heatstroke can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
To prevent heat stress, it is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding prolonged exposure to high temperatures, taking breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas, wearing lightweight and breathable clothing, and using protective measures such as hats and sunscreen. If someone experiences symptoms of heat stress, it is important to move them to a cooler environment, rest, hydrate, and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen.