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©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

articles200408“By the Seaside” trilled from my iPhone.

“I’m in the hospital ER,” a weak voice said. “Heatstroke.”

Been there, done that, I thought to myself. Around age 15. Seems like my temperature hovered near 105 degrees F, if I remember correctly. Our family had been spending a week tent-camping beside my father’s favorite lake when the temperature had soared unexpectedly… Felt so awful I thought I was going to die....

“Are you still there?” the voice asked.

I stopped reminiscing and tuned into the voice.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“In the ER. I told you that.”

“Where were you and what were you doing?” I asked.

“Oh. We took the kids camping near Death Valley.”

“Death Valley!” I shrieked. “What were you thinking? A news report said the temperature recently hit a high of 127 degrees Fahrenheit!”

“Duh,” the voice groaned. “We had no idea it would be that hot. I had been sweating profusely inside our 5th wheel and went outside hoping for a breeze. No luck. Before long I began to feel clammy and weak. That morphed into feeling lightheaded and nauseated. I stopped sweating and my skin felt hot and dry. Then my head started pounding to beat the proverbial band.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “You are definitely describing heatstroke. That’s a life-threatening condition!”

“I know,” the voice replied. “Well, I know that now. Fortunately, we were camping with a physician and his family. When they noticed my agitation, discovered my pulse rate was very high, and saw my confusion about where we were, they shifted into high gear. He and his wife put all their ice cubes into plastic bags, packed them around me, and drove (hell-bent-for-leather, I might add) to the nearest emergency center. Once there, I was covered with a cooling blanket and given IV fluids. The ER Doc said I was lucky I hadn’t had a seizure or gone into a coma...or worse.”

Irrespective of the ongoing and heated controversy about whether global warming even exists, this planet is experiencing above-average temperatures in many parts of the globe and has even registered some all-time records. This puts people at high risk for dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke—especially the elderly and the very young.

The problem is that when temperatures soar (especially if you are not indoors with air-conditioning) your body can sweat too much as it tries desperately to stay cool. In the process you also sweat away essential minerals such as sodium and potassium.

Other heat-related complications may include the following:

  • Sunburn – the effects of which may show up years later as skin cancers
  • Heat rash – the skin breaks out in little red bumps because the sweat glands can’t keep up with the body’s attempt to keep itself cool and, in effect, become blocked.
  • Fainting – dehydration can thicken your blood and even lower your blood pressure, which can contribute to dizziness and potential falling.
  • Difficulty breathing – air pollution can increase during a heat wave, which can negatively impact you even if you do not already have problems with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
  • Faster heart beat – your pulse rate may increase as your heart tries to pump more blood to your skin, where hopefully some of the extra heat can dissipate. If the heart cannot adjust to dehydration and its increased demands, that can only be bad news.

In most situations, prevention beats cure. That’s especially true for heatstroke. There are strategies that can help you avoid some heat-related and potentially life-threatening symptoms.

  1. Stay hydrated by design. Drink fluids whether you feel thirsty or not. Strive for one or two pale urines each day.
  2. Wear light, loose clothing, preferably made from cotton rather than synthetic fabrics.
  3. Be extremely cautious about exercising out-of-doors in heat, especially if the humidity is high (e.g., 80 percent) and/or air quality is bad. Some researchers point to four factors in the atmospheric environment that impact heat loss from the body and, therefore, can affect body-temperature equilibrium: temperature of the air, its moisture content (humidity), air movement, and radiation transfer between the body and surrounding surfaces.
  4. Avoid sugary drinks. They require water to digest and can be dehydrating.
  5. Avoid any substances that may contribute to dehydration, such as caffeine and alcohol.
  6. Never ever leave a child, elderly disabled person, or a pet in a vehicle alone. The temperature can climb unbelievably quickly inside a vehicle.
  7. Eat lighter, cooler meals rather than heavy, high-caloric meals that can increase your body’s digestive load.
  8. Stay out of the sun as much as possible. Use an umbrella if you must be out-of-doors, especially during mid-day periods.
  9. Hopefully your home or office is air-conditioned. If not, use a fan to circulate the air or look for temporary shelter in an air-conditioned environment—a library, church, school, or community center.
  10. Tune into your local Health Department for updates, suggestions on beating the heat, and potential options for spending some time in an air-conditioned environment or even in a public pool.

Having a heatstroke can be its own kind of Death Valley experience, since a brain that is too “hot” represents a potentially life-threatening situation.  

So, do your local ER a favor: heed the weather warnings and be proactive “by design” to keep your brain-body temperature in equilibrium.  Remember:  everything starts in the brain.

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