Physicians urge caution to avoid heat-related illnesses
Avoiding heat or having enough time to adjust to temperatures may not always be an option – especially for those in the military community. (U.S. Army photo)
THe Military Health System (MHS) is encouraging service members and their families to stay cool and healthy while being active. Physicians are advising people to take necessary steps to prevent an often underestimated health risk: heat-related illness.
Heat-related illnesses can develop when people are exposed to high temperatures or hot working environments for an extended time. These illnesses range from heat rashes or muscle cramps to heat exhaustion and stroke.
“Limit your time in the heat,” said Dr. Donald Shell, director of disease prevention, disease management and population health policy and oversight in the Defense Health Agency’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. “Don’t work as hard, pay attention to how you are feeling, take frequent breaks and monitor weather alerts for [high] heat and humidity.”
Heat stress builds when activity is done repeatedly without allowing time for the body to recover, even over the course of several days. Allowing enough time to adjust to the environment, which can take up to 14 days, is a critical aspect in preventing heat illnesses.
Avoiding heat or having enough time to adjust to temperatures may not always be an option – especially for those in the military community. However, these health risks can be prevented by taking basic safety precautions.
Dr. Jeff Leggit, associate professor of family and sports medicine at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, recommends staying hydrated and consuming enough calories and electrolytes to make sure the body isn’t working harder than it needs to in extreme heat.
“When it’s hot out, you shouldn’t go and do your normal thing,” warned Leggit, who tends to see injuries in people who are not used to exerting themselves in heat. “You should work your way up to it.”
Heat exhaustion is a condition in which dehydration is the underlying issue. Its symptoms include thirst, heavy sweating, weakness, nausea, clammy skin and fainting. The first step to treating this condition is moving to a cooler location and lying down. Wetting clothes, sipping on water and waiting to return to work until the body has recovered are also recommended, said Shell.
A heat stroke, the most dangerous form of heat illnesses, can be fatal. A person experiencing this may be unconscious, have a high body temperature, and hot, dry or red skin. When the body reaches this point, it is no longer able to compensate for the heat exposure through sweating. The organs can become affected if a lack of blood flow occurs.
“The most important thing is to get them out of the hot temperature, get their clothing wet, get them into an ice bath or put cool water on their skin and most definitely call 911,” said Shell.
Those who are 65 and older, as well as young children, are at increased risk for heat-related illnesses. However, no age is immune, said Shell – even someone who thinks he is well-skilled working in the heat.
“There are many different things that can occur in the heat,” said Shell. “We want everyone to be active and be outside enjoying the environment as much as possible but planning in advance is critical when it is hot outside.”