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Release Date: 7/11/2012

Prevent heat sickness without sacrificing summer fun

Dana Galbraith, M.D.

Dana Galbraith, M.D.

Summertime in St. Louis traditionally combines searing temperatures with skyrocketing humidity. But this summer is shaping up to break all previous records, with thermometers regularly registering 100 degrees-plus.


The intensity and duration of this summer’s heat poses a higher than normal risk of heat sickness. Outdoor laborers and exercisers need to be especially careful during the sweltering summer months; but those at greatest risk include the elderly, the very young and those with chronic diseases.


Normally, the body cools itself by sweating; but, when the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as fast, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly. Extremely hot temperatures make your heart beat faster, because the heart is working harder to push blood to the skin and muscles. When the body can’t get rid of excess heat quickly enough, its “cooling system” breaks down and your organs may overheat and even stop working. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.


There are three phases of heat sickness:


Phase One is heat stress – a warning stage. The signals include feeling tired, excessively hot, nauseated or chilled. The person may experience dizziness and even have difficulty seeing. Muscle cramps also can occur at this stage. They are a sign of water depletion, signaling the need to take a break – out of the sun – and drink some fluids. If the cramps do not subside within an hour, seek medical attention.


Phase Two is heat exhaustion. The skin starts to turn red, the body temperature may elevate slightly and the body begins sweating profusely. The victim’s pulse rate will be fast and weak and breathing will be fast and shallow. The person also may experience headache, fainting and/or vomiting. To combat these symptoms, a person should stop the activity immediately, go into a cool area, drink water and rest for the remainder of the day. If the symptoms are severe or if the victim has heart disease or high blood pressure, seek medical attention.


Phase Three is heat stroke, which is signaled by dry skin and body temperatures that can be in excess of 103 degrees. Other symptoms may include a strong, rapid pulse; throbbing headache; lack of perspiration; nausea; dizziness; muscle twitching; confusion, and unconsciousness. Seek immediate medical attention. While waiting for emergency medical personnel to arrive, cool the victim down as best you can. Move him/her to a shady or air-conditioned area and spray or sponge with cool water until help arrives. Do not give the victim fluids to drink.


Air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against any heat-related illness. But how can you prevent the onset of heat sickness, without huddling in your air-conditioned house all summer? Here are some tips:


  • Give your body time to become acclimated to the heat. Don’t overdo activity outside if you aren’t accustomed to the hot temperatures, and plan your outdoor activities for the early morning or early evening hours.
  • Drink plenty of water. Don't wait until you are thirsty to drink; by that time, you already are behind. Drinking water before, during and after an outdoor workout cools down the body's system and replenishes lost water.
  • When possible, wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothes, made of natural fibers. Don't wear a hat, as it captures heat; use a visor to keep sun out of your eyes.
  • Use sunscreens with a protection factor of at least 15 to protect skin from sun.
  • Limit outdoor activities if you are taking cold medications, which can dry out mucous membranes and lead to dehydration.

Despite the heat and humidity of the season, you don’t have to miss out on the outdoor activities summer has to offer. Just use a few common sense precautions to stay healthy in the heat.




Dr. Dana Galbraith, a family medicine specialist, is a member of St. Anthony’s Physician Organization. She practices at St. Anthony’s Family Health Partners, at 59 Grasso Plaza in Affton. Call 314-543-5258 for an appointment. For a referral to any St. Anthony’s physician, call 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 1-800-554-9550.

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