Weekend Warriors emerge from air-conditioned offices on Fridays to do battle with the lawnmower and that sand trap on the 16th hole. It‘s 82 degrees with high humidity today. Wizards use their genius to outsmart the effects on the body from hours of heat exposure with a few ice packs and some Gatorade. It’s 92 degrees and there is no breeze today. Warlocks are invincible and heat doesn’t endanger them or others for that matter…leaving a child in the car with the window open a crack so that shopping in Wal-mart for a minute is less of a hassle….1 minute turns into 30. It’s 90 degrees today and the temperature in the car reaches 109 degrees within just 10 minutes.
Environmental heat exposure is one of the most deadly natural hazards in the United States. The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps (WVAC) strives to bring education and awareness of the dangers of excessive heat with the goal of saving lives.
There are 3 stages of heat injury:
Heat Cramps – agonizing pain in the skeletal muscles of the limbs and trunk. Cramps are warning signs and are:
- Recurrent or sporadic spasms
- Extremely painful
- Due to dehydration, salt depletion and electrolyte imbalance
- Experienced by individuals who are not conditioned for physical exertion
Heat Exhaustion – a serious stage of heat illness that is associated with moderate elevations in core temperature. Upon experiencing the signs and symptoms listed below, one must stop the activity, get cool, elevate legs and rehydrate. If the individual does not improve, 911 should be called immediately. There is the potential for cardiovascular system collapse in this stage. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion are:
Heat Stroke – a severe and life threatening stage, with an onset when Stage 2 (Heat exhaustion) is allowed to progress. Central nervous system dysfunction is the hallmark. Signs and symptoms of heat stroke are:
- High body temperature
- Slurred speech
- Warm, dry skin
- Lack of sweating
- Flushed skin
- Rapid breathing
- Racing heart
- Multi-organ system failure and death
Sweating is one of the body’s mechanisms for regulating core temperature. But sweating is only effective in non-humid, and breezy conditions. It is the movement of air over the body’s sweat that causes the sweat to evaporate, resulting in cooling. Hot, humid conditions are a set-up for serious illness because a person’s sweat does not evaporate in such conditions. Thus, the body is unable to benefit from the sweat response.
In addition, during times of sweating the body must remain hydrated and electrolytes must remain in balance. Excessive sweating will eventually lead to electrolyte imbalances that can cause fatal, cardiac arrhythmias, reduced blood flow to skeletal muscle, permanent muscle injury and kidney failure.
Excessive sweating can also cause an elevated sodium level in the blood. Increased sodium levels have devastating effects on the brain such as brain swelling, bleeding inside the head and permanent brain damage. This is why we see serious central nervous system manifestations such as delirium, seizures and coma in people exposed to heat.
Heat also places large cardiovascular demands on the body. Blood flow is shunted from the body’s internal organs to the skin surface in order to dissipate excess heat out of the body. In addition, hyperthermia can cause an increase in blood viscosity (thickness), making the heart work harder to circulate the thickened blood in an attempt to cool the body.
Perhaps one of the most flawed beliefs that people maintain is that should someone become “overheated” they can simply be cooled down with cool water and ice packs, enabling the individual to bounce back as if nothing happened. The truth of the matter is that despite rapid cooling, rehydration and other treatments, approximately 30% of heat stroke survivors experience permanent decrements in neurologic function and organ failure.
The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation.