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HEALTHY LIVING — Heat is on: Be wary of its dangers

No two ways about it, summer is here and it is hot. Forget “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” It is the heat and it is the humidity and combined they make for a miserable time.

Today we are talking heat-related illnesses. They are heatstroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps. The practical advice is stay out of the heat, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. But that is just not always possible. So, arm yourself with the knowledge to protect yourself and your loved ones from suffering from these maladies.

Prolonged or intense exposure to hot temperatures can cause heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke (also known as sun stroke). As your body works to cool itself under extreme or prolonged heat, blood rushes to the surface of your skin. As a result, less blood reaches your brain, muscles, and other organs.

This can interfere with both your physical strength and your mental capacity, leading, in some cases, to serious danger. Those who work in hot or humid environments — such as manufacturing plants, bakeries or construction sites during summer months — are most at risk. However, even long, hot afternoons at the beach can pose problems if warning signs are ignored.

Heat-related illness can strike anyone. But chronic alcoholics, the elderly, the young, the obese and individuals whose immune systems may be compromised are at greater risk, as are individuals taking certain drugs, such as antihistamines, antipsychotic medications and cocaine. High humidity also increases the risk of heat illness because it interferes with the evaporation of sweat, your body’s way of cooling itself.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses large amounts of water and salt through excessive sweating, particularly through hard physical labor or exercise. This loss of essential fluids can disturb circulation and interfere with brain function. Individuals who have heart, lung or kidney problems or are on low-sodium diets may be particularly susceptible to heat exhaustion.

As in heat exhaustion, heat cramps can strike when the body loses excessive amounts of fluids and salt. This deficiency, accompanied by the loss of other essential nutrients such as potassium and magnesium, typically occurs during heavy exertion.

Heat exhaustion and cramps can usually be alleviated by escaping the heat: resting; drinking water, clear juice or a sports beverage, and eating moderately salty foods. Gentle massage or firm pressure applied to cramping muscles may help alleviate spasms.

Heat stroke, the most serious of the heat-related illnesses, occurs when the body suffers from long, intense exposure to heat and loses its ability to cool itself. In prolonged, extreme heat, the part of the brain that normally regulates body temperature malfunctions. There is a decrease in the body’s ability to sweat and, therefore, cool down. Those who have certain medical conditions that decrease the body’s ability to sweat — such as scleroderma or cystic fibrosis — may be at greater risk of developing heat stroke.

First, get help. It is critical that emergency medical assistance be called as soon as possible. Then, if possible, get the victim to drink, but don’t force fluids if the person is confused or has passed out. Avoid alcohol or caffeine.

The primary treatment for heat exhaustion is replacement of lost fluids and salt. Victims should be moved to a cool environment, lie flat or with their feet raised slightly above head level, and sip a cool, slightly salty beverage — such as a sports drink, tomato juice, cool bouillon or other vegetable or fruit juices.

Heat stroke usually develops rapidly and can cause permanent brain damage or death if not treated promptly. Anyone with heat stroke needs emergency medical attention. Do not delay treatment.

Once at the hospital, a person who has suffered heat stroke will be given intravenous fluids to correct dehydration and replete sodium and potassium. The person also may be given intravenous drugs to control seizures or other complications and will likely be confined to bed rest and monitored for 24 hours to several days.

Common sense and precautions will keep you safe. Avoid extreme heat when you can. Take care, my friends.

Jody Holton writes about healthy living for The Port Arthur News.