Woman with a bottle of water suffering from heat stroke outdoors

How to Detect Signs and Symptoms of Extreme Heat

In 2022 we are experiencing the hottest summer ever in Hungary. During a heatwave, you might experience discomfort or poor health. You can feel light-headed and dizzy, going hot and cold. These are a few symptoms of extreme heat. If you are aware of these, you can act fast to help yourself or a loved one who might be experiencing them. Learn the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses in this article.

What happens to the body as a result of exposure to extreme heat?

People suffer heat-related illnesses when the body’s temperature control system is overloaded. The body normally cools itself by sweating, but sometimes it’s just not enough. In such cases, a person’s body temperature rises rapidly. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs. Several factors affect the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly. Other conditions that can limit the ability to regulate temperature include old age, youth (age 0-4), obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, and prescription drug or alcohol use.

Here are the most common problems caused by heat:

  • Heat stroke (or sunstroke)
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Heat cramps
  • Sunburn
  • Heat rash

What is heat stroke (or sunstroke)?

Heat stroke (otherwise called sunstroke) is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.

Warning signs of heat stroke:

  • An extremely high body temperature (above 39.5°C)
  • Red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

What to do if you see any of these signs?

You may be dealing with a life-threatening emergency. Call for immediate medical assistance and start to cool the victim:

  • Get the victim to a shady area.
  • Cool the victim rapidly, for example, immerse in a tub of cool water; place the person in a cool shower; spray the victim with cool water from a garden hose; sponge the person with cool water; or if the humidity is low, wrap the victim in a cool, wet sheet and fan him or her vigorously.
  • Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 38.3-39°C.
  • Seek urgent medical attention.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness. This can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Most prone to heat exhaustion are elderly people, those with high blood pressure, and who are working or exercising in a hot environment.

Warning signs of heat exhaustion:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting

The skin may be cool and moist. The pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow. If heat exhaustion is untreated, it may progress to heat stroke.

Seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or last longer than one hour.

What are heat cramps and who is affected?

Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms – usually in the abdomen, arms, or legs – that may occur in association with strenuous activity. People who sweat a lot during strenuous activity are prone to heat cramps. This sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture. The low salt level in the muscles causes painful cramps. Heat cramps may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion. If you have heart problems or are on a low-sodium diet, seek medical attention for heat cramps.

If medical attention is not necessary, take the following steps:

  • Stop all activities and sit quietly in a cool place.
  • Drink clear water (mineral water), juice or a sports beverage.
  • Do not return to strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps subside because further exertion may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Seek medical attention for heat cramps if they do not subside in 1 hour.

What are the symptoms of sunburn?

In case of a sunburn, the skin’s temperature gets warmer, it turns red and hurts. If the burn is severe, swelling and sunburn blisters can develop. The symptoms seem like the flu: feverish, chills, nausea, headache, and weakness. Later, when the skin tries to get rid of sun-damaged cells, it starts peeling and itching.

How can you relieve sunburn?

  • Move away from sunshine until your sunburn heals.
  • Treat the sunburned areas with cool clothes or cold water.
  • Apply moisturizer lotion that contains aloe vera on sunburned areas.
  • Allow the blisters to heal, and do not break them.

What is heat rash?

Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. It can occur at any age but is most common in young children. Heat rash looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It is more likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases.
The best treatment for heat rash is to provide a cooler, less humid environment. Keep the affected area dry. Dusting powder may be used to increase comfort.

How can you protect your health when temperatures are extremely high?

Remember to keep cool and use common sense. Drink plenty of fluid, replace salts and minerals, wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen, pace yourself, stay cool indoors, schedule outdoor activities carefully, use a buddy system, monitor those at risk, and adjust to the environment.

Contact our medical professionals if you or someone under your care is suffering from the effects of extreme heat.

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