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The Dangers of Summer Heat Exposure

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The Dangers of Summer Heat Exposure

Jul 23, 2021

Spend enough time outside during the summer months and you may feel tired, thirsty, or a little nauseous. These are relatively common symptoms of heat exhaustion. But if your body temperature gets too high, you may experience potentially life-threatening heatstroke. Dr. Troy Madsen explains how to protect yourself and your loved ones from severe heat exposure.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: So during the summer months, temperatures are rising, people are getting out more, and you might be getting a little concerned about heat exposure and how it might be impacting your health.

We're here with emergency room physician, Dr. Troy Madsen. And Dr. Madsen, when it comes to heat exposure, what do people need to be concerned about?

Dr. Madsen: Well, the biggest thing with heat exposure is just your body overheating. That's where you really start to see issues not just with feeling uncomfortable, but potentially having even a life-threatening situation. Some people . . . you know, you may be familiar with just being out in the heat, you've been hiking or on your bike, or you know, whatever you might be doing, and you're probably familiar with that feeling of just feeling thirsty and tired and maybe a little bit nauseous and maybe a little bit of a headache. Well, at that point, you may be experiencing what we call heat exhaustion. But the big risk becomes when you move beyond that, and your body temperature continues to rise. And then you can experience what's called heatstroke. And that becomes a much more serious thing.

In those situations, your body temperature is often very high. You can have damage to the organs in your body, meaning damage to the kidneys, even potentially the heart, the brain. And in some of those situations, when you hear about these stories of people in places where there is just extreme heat and people are dying of the heat, it is often because of heat stroke that that's happening.

Interviewer: Yeah, we hear about these deadly heat waves and things on the news. And it's, you know, what does that even mean? We're talking like organ damage. Like the heat is getting so high that . . . are you talking brain? Are you talking heart? Who is at risk, and what is it actually doing to the body?

Dr. Madsen: It's exactly that. The body is getting so hot that it is leading to damage and breakdown of the tissues in the brain, the heart, the kidneys. Sometimes part of that is dehydration that's contributing to that as well where that's affecting your kidney function. But in terms of risk, there are a few groups who are really at risk of this. Number one is people who are experiencing homelessness, who may be out in the heat, aren't in a cool place. Other people who are out doing outdoor activities. And maybe you find yourself in a situation where you're out, you're exposed, you know, there's no way to really cool down, maybe you didn't bring enough water along on your hike or your bike ride.

But then there are also certain groups that are really at risk. And these are the very young and the very old. So young babies, infants, and then older people have a tougher time regulating their body temperature. So you might be out, and let's say you take your baby, you know, in a stroller, you're out on a walk, or you go to the zoo or something and you're feeling okay, or maybe you're feeling just a little bit of a headache or a little bit hot. Your baby could be experiencing very severe symptoms in that situation. So if you live with the very young or the very old, just be aware that if you're not feeling great, they're probably experiencing a whole lot more of the heat and much worse effects than you are.

Interviewer: So it sounds like heat exposure affects basically anyone and everyone if you don't, you know, take the right steps. What are some of the ways that a person can, say, prevent heat exhaustion and then later heat stroke?

Dr. Madsen: Well, the biggest thing, you know, is to try and be in a situation where you can cool down. If you're out on a hike or you're out somewhere in the outdoors, try to go in shaded areas, ideally areas that have a water source, something where you can cool down if you need to. Carry plenty of water, you want to make sure you have lots of water with you. The general rule of thumb is 16 ounces of water per hour. I tell people start with at least eight ounces if you're just doing moderate activities. Sixteen ounces can be a lot to carry if you're out on several hours, but try and do that if you can, or at least know where you can get some water.

The big thing I would suggest too is if you have elderly parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, check in on them. One of the sad things that sometimes happens is older people, especially right now, may not have checked their air conditioner, may not know if it's working, or it may work and then it stops working. And sometimes a very sad thing we see is people in this situation then are either embarrassed to reach out for help or don't know who to call for help. And the house temperature gets very hot, and they experience severe symptoms with heatstroke or even death. So check on those people. If you have babies as well, just be aware that they can experience these heat symptoms much more than you may be experiencing at that same time.

Interviewer: So heatstroke, something to keep in mind, something that could be very, very dangerous. ER-worthy if it gets bad enough?

Dr. Madsen: Absolutely, yep. If it's bad enough, if you have a family member or yourself who's just confused, not feeling well, absolutely, get to the ER. Try to get cooled down quickly. Call 911 if you need immediate help.