We humans feel well and function well only when our body temperature doesn’t vary much from normal. If the body temperature rises more than a few degrees serious effects may follow.

What are the effects of heatwaves?

The body temperature we need to maintain for ordinary health is achieved by a combination of control through a nerve center in the brain, the circulatory system (heart, arteries, and veins), and the sweat glands, which allow us to cool by evaporation from the body surface.

But the system of heat control can break down if we are exposed to unduly hot conditions, or if our bodies become short of water and salt in hot weather, especially if the circulatory system is defective and cannot carry the load that a hot environment imposes.

Being overcome by the heat is a common condition during summer heatwaves. The main ill-effects of heatwaves are sunstroke or heatstroke, severe sunburn, and heat exhaustion.

We will now attempt to discuss the kinds of heat-related illnesses which exposure to great heat may have on people and how these effects may be treated in a sensible first-aid manner, or better still prevented altogether.

How to identify heat illness

Sunstroke and heatstroke are the same, now properly called heat stroke. It is a condition in which the body temperature control system breaks down abruptly, allowing the body temperature to rise alarmingly, and sweating to diminish or cease.

As the name suggests, it happens suddenly, and death can follow quickly if it is untreated.

Heat exhaustion is a circulatory collapse condition usually from physical exertion in a hot environment. Heat exhaustion can be serious in the young or the elderly.

Heatstroke

Symptoms of heatstroke are severe headache, mental confusion, dizziness, thirst and drowsiness, some times accompanied by frequent urinating.

The face becomes flushed. The patient’s skin becomes very hot and dry and the pulse becomes rapid and full.

It is common among babies, the elderly and those with some underlying disease. Breathing is rapid, sometimes almost like snoring, and the body temperature is usually very high — up to 42 degrees C (107 degrees F).

As the condition worsens mental confusion and loss of consciousness may occur and the patient passes into a coma.

The overall picture is that of a “burning hot dry man”.

Treatment

Call a doctor at once as it can be fatal if untreated.

While waiting for the doctor to arrive remove the patient to a cool shady spot where there is ample air circulating and cool him rapidly.

  • Reducing the patient’s temperature is the main object.
  • Remove all unnecessary clothing and replace it with a wet sheet.
  • Fan vigorously to encourage evaporation of moisture from the sheet but avoid overcooling.
  • Wet the sheet again as it dries out. Interrupt the treatment when the body temperature falls to about 39 degrees C (102 degrees F) if you have a thermometer, or continue till medical help arrives.

Too rapid a drop in temperature can cause shock and collapse of the patient.

Once the temperature has begun to fall normal body heat control usually resumes automatically.

On recovery avoid exposure to hot conditions for a few days, preferably after getting a doctor’s clearance.

Heat exhaustion

This is a state of semi-collapse caused by dehydration, salt depletion or when the circulatory system fails to pump blood fast enough to cool the body.

Even fit people can suffer from heat exhaustion after physical exertion in hot conditions when they lack sufficient salt in the diet and have not been drinking enough water.

Symptoms: Weakness, dizziness, and nausea. The pulse becomes weak and may be irregular, the skin cold and clammy and the body temperature drops.

Breathing becomes shallow and faint and the patient may lose consciousness. The face becomes pale, the pupils of the eyes enlarge and nausea and restlessness are common.

Headache may become severe.

A cold collapsed person who is sweating freely in a heatwave is usually suffering from heat exhaustion.

Treatment

The patient should be placed in a lying position with the feet slightly elevated and tight clothing loosened or removed.

Give sips of lightly salted fluids if conscious.

Obtain medical assistance.

Prickly heat

A fine red, pinpoint intensely irritating rash is another complaint that worries some people who perspire very freely, especially if their work or social situation prevents them from wearing light and loose clothing, thereby preventing evaporation of sweat.

Treatment

Keep the skin clean to prevent infection.

Shower frequently but do not use soap. Mild neutral cleansing agents can be used instead. Several brands of prickly-heat preparation are available from chemists. These may be used to help the irritation.

In cases of severe prickly heat seek medical advice.

Precautions against heat illness

To reduce the danger of heat ill effects avoid:

  • Prolonged exposure to excessive heat.
  • Overexposure to sunlight (direct or indirect).
  • Excessive artificial heat in confined spaces.
  • Bodily fatigue and overcrowding in warm humid conditions.
  • Overdressing in hot weather – wear a minimum of loose-fitting clothing.

Prevention is best.

People who have to work at heavy tasks in hot environments should have frequent short rest periods and drink plenty of cold water.

If sweating is excessive more water should be drunk than just to satisfy’s one’s thirst.

At the same time extra salt should be taken (a teaspoonful to a gallon of water). However, extra salt should not be taken if it could be bad for any medical condition. Consult your doctor about this.

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