Chances are the beautiful temperatures DC has right now won’t last long. Chances are the dog days of summer are still yet to come. So, before the heat and humidity begin to rise again, let’s look at the different types and causes of heat illnesses so you can be prepared.
Heat illnesses are very serious and sometimes fatal. They are the third leading cause of death among high school athletes in the United States. Heat illnesses are caused when the body’s thermoregulatory systems are unable to properly maintain its core temperature, causing it to rise to levels that can produce physical and mental symptoms, organ tissue damage and even death.
Most heat-related illnesses can be treated, in advance, with proper hydration, training, and awareness of outside temperatures and humidity. For a trained athlete, it typically takes two weeks of training for the body to adjust to higher than normal temperatures. For the untrained athlete it could take as long as two to three months.
- On days when the heat and humidity is higher than normal, lowering your duration or intensity of workouts should be planned. It is sometimes necessary to take multiple breaks from your workout.
- Proper hydration is very important. Dehydration can occur in a single workout or can accumulate over several days. One method to measure hydration is pre- and post-exercise weighing. For every pound lost during exercise, you should have consumed 16-20 ounces of fluids (preferably a 50/50 mix of water and sports drink). Additional electrolyte replacement may be necessary.
- If you know you will have a long workout or race, begin hydrating two to three days prior to the event.
- An easy method of checking your hydration level is to make sure your urine is a very light yellow color. If darker, this could be an indication of dehydration.
Heat cramps (sometimes known as muscle cramps) can occur when the body loses excessive amounts of fluids and salt. This deficiency, accompanied by the loss of other essential nutrients (potassium and magnesium, for instance), typically occurs during heavy exercise.
- Characterized by involuntary and often painful twitching or spasm of skeletal muscles commonly in the abdomen, arms and legs.
- Treatment: Stop exercising, drink fluids and the cramps should cease.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses large amounts of water and salt because of excessive sweating during heavy exercise. This loss can disturb circulation and interfere with brain function. Athletes with heart problems or those on low-sodium diets may be particularly susceptible to heat exhaustion.
- Characterized by nausea, vomiting, hyperventilation, hypotension and elevated heart rate accompanied by profuse sweating, Athletes typically cannot continue exercising. If untreated, this can lead to circulatory collapse and heat stroke.
- Treatment: Remove wet clothing and replace with dry ones. Ice packs can be placed on the forehead and under armpits to help decrease body temperature. May require IV hydration and monitoring vital signs from a medical professional.
Heat stroke is the most serious of heat-related illnesses and occurs when the body suffers from long, intense exposure to heat and loses its ability to cool itself. The part of the brain that normally regulates body temperature malfunctions. This decrease the body’s ability to sweat and, therefore, cool down.
- Characterized by hot dry skin (not always), altered mental state (either confused or irritable), lack of muscle control, vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate, hypotension, seizures, and coma.
- Treatment: This is a medical emergency and 911 should be called immediately.
Knowing the signs, symptoms and treatment of heat-related illnesses can help keep you safe and possibly save your life.