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Heat Illness is a potentially serious medical condition that affects millions of people around the United States every summer. If you’ve ever lived in Kentucky and its humid subtropical climate, you know that summertime temperature can quickly become dangerous within the Bluegrass state. When high temperatures combine with high humidity, heat indices can easily rise over 100°F, leaving even the strongest among us vulnerable to heat illness.
When exerting yourself in extreme heat, your body tries to protect itself in several ways. The human system works best when it is at the preferred 98.6°F, so 80% of the energy you use leaves your body in the form of heat through the circulatory system. The heat travels through the blood to the skin where it dissipates naturally. In normal circumstances, you can feel your skin temperature rise as your body works to draw heat away from vital internal organs. When you are subjected to higher temperatures, the body cannot dissipate heat fast enough through dry skin, so your brain will activate the sweat glands of your body to activate, sending fluids to the surface of the skin. The fluids help draw heat more efficiently from the skin, and the heat is dissipated through evaporating sweat. Once your body transfers the heat to your skin and sweat, the cooled blood circulates back through to your vital organs.
However, if you are in an environment in which the temperature is higher that your body’s temperature, or if you’re in an extremely humid environment, sweat is unable to evaporate from your skin, and the heat cannot safety dissipate. Once this happens, your body begins to send out warning signals to let you know that something is wrong.
- Heat Rash can occur when sweat doesn’t properly evaporate from the skin, causing irritating and uncomfortable bumps on the affected area.
- Heat Cramps can occur when a tired or overworked muscle loses electrolytes, such as salt, through natural sweating, that it begins to seize. These can be very painful and last for hours.
- Heat Exhaustion can occur when the body becomes dangerously dehydrated of water, salt, or both. An affected person can have a throbbing headache, become confused and/or irritable, have a rapid heartbeat, and pale skin. The body will produce excess sweat in a last ditch effort to cool internal organs. If not treated quickly and properly, a person can begin to experience the most dangerous heat illness of all, heat stroke.
- Heat Stroke occurs when the body’s cooling system fails, and is considered a medical emergency. The victim becomes dehydrated and will no longer sweat. With no means to cool itself, body temperature will quickly rise to above 104°F. After 30 minutes at that temperature, cells begin to break down, causing potentially deadly results. Victims will often faint when suffering a heat stroke, as well as potentially vomiting, having hot, red skin, shallow breathing, and a rapid heartbeat. If you suspect someone is suffering a heat stroke, dial 911 immediately.
Luckily, victims of heat illness can make a full recovery with proper care. Please watch this short video for a more thorough explanation of the body’s cooling system, and how to treat those affected by heat-related illnesses.
When working or spending extended time in high temperatures, remember to do the following:
- Hydrate properly the night before, avoiding alcohol and caffeine
- Wear light, breathable clothing
- Drink water every 15 minutes even if you are not thirsty
- Eat foods high in water content, such as watermelon, lettuce, and cucumbers
- Take frequent rest breaks in shade or air conditioned rooms
- Wear sunscreen to protect your skin
- Listen to your body, and watch out for symptoms of heat stress in yourself and those around you
- OSHA Resources for Heat Illnesses
- CDC/NIOSH Source for Recognizing Heat Illnesses
- Supervisor’s Guide to Protecting Employees from Heat Illness