By Dr. Amber Stephens, family medicine specialist with Optum Main Street
July Fourth is a day to celebrate our country’s independence. It’s also a holiday that marks the season of summer vacation and travel – a time for family getaways to sunny destinations, theme parks, lakes, historic monuments, national parks and more.
As the heat increases, it’s important to be aware of heat-related illnesses including heat rash, cramps, exhaustion and even heat stroke. In addition, certain groups of people are at higher risk of suffering from heat-related illness. By knowing who is at risk and what prevention measures to take, these types of illnesses can be avoided this summer.
Heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, happen when the body is not able to properly cool itself. While the body normally cools itself by sweating, during extreme heat, this might not be enough. In these cases, a person’s body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down. This can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs.
Some factors that might increase risk include:
- High levels of humidity
- Dehydration - water and sports drinks
- Prescription drug use
- Heart disease
- Mental illness
- Poor circulation
- Alcohol use
According to the CDC, 600 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year. Despite the alarming statistics, heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable. In addition, certain groups of people are at higher risk of suffering from heat-related illness, including athletes, infants and children, and older adults ages 65 and older.
There are a variety of warning signs and symptoms. Some of the most common illnesses and their warning signs include the following:
Heat stroke is a potentially life-threatening emergency and is the most serious heat-related illness. This occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature and the sweating mechanism fails. This type of illness can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
- Look for: High body temperature typically 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher; loss of consciousness, dizziness, nausea, confusion, headache, or hot, red, dry or damp skin
- What to do: Call 911 immediately. Do not give the person anything to drink. It is imperative to begin cooling; move them to a cooler place and help lower their body temperature quickly with a cold water or ice bath if possible, wet the skin, place wet cloths on skin or soak clothing with cool water.
Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness that can take place after several days of exposure to high temperatures and an unbalanced or inadequate replenishment of fluids. This typically occurs in elderly people, people with high blood pressure and those who work or exercise in a hot environment. Get medical help right away if you or the person affected is throwing up or has symptoms that are getting worse or last more than one hour.
- Look for: Heavy sweating, cold and clammy skin, nausea or vomiting, fast or weak pulse, dizziness and headache, tiredness or weakness, or muscle cramps
- What to do: Move to a cool place, sip water, loosen your clothes or put cool, wet cloths on your body
Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms (typically in the abdomen, arms or legs) that may occur with strenuous activity. People who sweat a lot during activity are prone to heat cramps as sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture causing painful cramps.
- Look for: Heavy sweating during intense exercise, and muscle pains or spasms
- What to do: Stop physical activity and move to a cool place, wait for cramps to dissipate before continuing any activity, drink water or a sports drink.
Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating. This can occur at any age but is more common in young children.
- Look for: Red clusters of small blisters that look like pimples on the skin, typically on neck, chest, groin or in elbow creases
- What to do: Stay in a cool, dry place, use powder to soothe the rash, and keep the rash dry.
When the temperature is high, keep cool and use common sense. For example:
- Stay in cool places (air-conditioned, if possible)
- Stay hydrated. Increase your fluid intake regardless of activity and don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. Hydrate with water and sports drinks (also known as electrolyte beverages). Coconut water and Pedialyte are also good for hydration. A general rule of thumb is to drink enough non-alcoholic fluids each hour to maintain normal color and output of urine. NOTE: Some people may be fluid restricted because of underlying health disorders. If this is the case, consult with your doctor on the best ways to stay hydrated.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Wear as little clothing as possible and choose lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting garments. A wide-brimmed hat can help protect you from the sun and keep your head cool. Make sure you apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to going outside and reapply accordingly. Be sure to use sunscreen. Although using sunscreen will not protect a person from heat-related illness, it is important to help protect from sunburn.
- Replace salts and minerals. Heavy sweating depletes your body of salt and minerals; however, do not take salt tablets unless directed by your doctor. Drink fruit juice or a sports beverage when you exercise or work in the heat to replace salts and minerals.
- Monitor those at risk. Use a buddy system and know which groups are more at risk for heat-related illnesses.
- Adjust to your environment. Pace yourself if you are working out or working in a hot environment. Increase outdoor activity gradually and limit activity to the cooler times of the day. 
Enjoy Independence Day and be sure to stay cool, hydrated and informed to keep your family safe when outdoors.