I'm the biggest fan of being outdoors you'll ever meet. I'm always the one
who suggests a walk or a hike, an outdoor meeting at work, lunch or dinner on
the deck. I also love summer. I have a high heat tolerance and have been known
to mow the lawn or embark on a bike ride when temperatures are pushing triple
In fact, my love of being outdoors in the sunshine was a major catalyst for
taking up golf this past year. While I often had trouble getting my friends to
join me for a walk or a bike ride in the heat, there's something about golf
that brings out those mad dog and Englishman* tendencies. But something
happened with the thermometer this year, and even I am getting a little weary
of the persistent, day-after-day heat. When temps hover in the high 90s, it can
become unpleasant or even dangerous to be outside, especially pursuing anything
strenuous. How dangerous? I did a little research. There are three main
heat-related medical syndromes, which range in severity from mild heat cramps
to heat exhaustion to potentially life-threatening heatstroke.
Of the three syndromes, heat cramps are the least life threatening and are most
likely to occur during strenuous exercise under hot conditions. The painful,
involuntary muscle spasms typically occur in the arms, legs, or abdomen. They
can be quite intense and often last longer than a typical "charley
horse" or nocturnal leg cramp. Symptoms can also include faintness or
dizziness, weakness, and profuse sweating. Inadequate fluid intake and/or loss
of sodium can contribute to heat cramps.
The best way to treat heat cramps is to rest, cool down, get hydrated, and
stretch the cramped muscle -- all pretty intuitive. Your beverage should be a
sports drink with electrolytes or a clear fruit juice such as apple or grape.
Symptoms typically subside quickly, but if cramping persists after an hour, see
a doctor. Athletes who intend to continue working out through a hot summer
period should increase their sodium intake throughout the warm spell.
More serious than heat cramps, heat exhaustion is also typically caused by
exercising in the heat, particularly when you are unaccustomed to it. As with
heat cramps, heat exhaustion occurs when the body is low on fluids and
electrolytes, and replacing both helps remediate the problem. Ambient humidity
exacerbates the potential for heat exhaustion, because the body's natural
cooling system (i.e., sweating) does not function optimally.
Heat exhaustion is in many ways similar to going into shock. The sufferer
feels faint or dizzy and may experience nausea and/or a headache. Heavy
sweating occurs, urine turns dark, and the skin feels cool and moist. Heat
cramps may occur prior to heat exhaustion setting in. Some of the underlying
symptoms that the sufferer may not notice immediately, but can check for
include low blood pressure, a shallow and rapid heartbeat, and/or a low fever.
A sudden onset of fatigue accompanied by any of these symptoms likely indicates
heat exhaustion, hence the name.
The first aid for heat exhaustion is common sense: get out of the sun and
try to cool down in the shade or indoors with air-conditioning. Drink cool
fluids and get the body wet if possible, even misting or sponging on water.
Stop activity, loosen your clothing, and lay down. Heat exhaustion can turn
into heatstroke. Watch for fainting or increased confusion, and if possible
monitor the victim's temperature. A fever greater than 102 degrees F indicates it's
time for medical assistance.
The most severe of the heat-related problems, heatstroke can also result from
exercise or heavy work in the heat combined with inadequate fluid intake, or can
occur in individuals whose natural cooling mechanisms are impaired. Young
children, elderly people, and obese people are more at risk, and some people
have congenital conditions that impair their ability to sweat and naturally
cool off. Certain drugs, including alcohol and antihistamines, can also impair
the body's natural cooling mechanisms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, what makes heatstroke severe and potentially
life-threatening is that the body's normal mechanisms for dealing with heat
stress, such as sweating and temperature control, are lost. The main sign of
heatstroke is a markedly elevated body temperature -- generally greater than
104 degrees F -- with changes in mental status ranging from personality changes to
confusion and coma. Skin may be hot and dry or, in the case of exercise-induced
heatstroke, the skin may be moist. Other signs and symptoms may include a rapid
heartbeat, shallow breathing, changes in blood pressure, lack of sweating, or
any of the symptoms mentioned for heat exhaustion. First-aid treatment is
essentially the same as with heat exhaustion, but the stakes are higher when
the individual's temperature reaches these levels.
In short, take care in the heat, and watch out for family and friends,
especially the very young, the very old, and those on medications. Avoid
excessive alcohol intake. And don't forget your four-legged friends; dogs and
cats suffer in the heat as well. Make sure yours have shady and cool places to
get out of the sun and plenty of cool, fresh water to drink during these hot
weeks of midsummer.
Sally O'Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who lives in southeastern
Washington State and writes weekly for Sportsman's Guide. Her sources for some
of the information in this article include: http://www.mayoclinic.com/,
http://www.emedicinehealth.com/, and http://sportsmedicine.about.com/
* This refers to the 1930s song by Noël Coward, "Mad Dogs and
Englishmen," in which he observes: "In Bengal to move at all / Is
seldom, if ever, done / But mad dogs and Englishmen / Go out in the midday sun.