Stayin' Alive: A Hot Mess

Summer is in full swing here in the Catskills, and the flurry of outdoor activities that these hills and dales offer bring droves from near and far to take advantage of what incredible resources Mother Nature offers us. She’s a tough mother in the summer, however -- particularly when it comes to the heat.

To make matters worse, we often find ourselves doing things that we shouldn’t be doing during heat waves, like the one our area experienced a few weeks ago. Activities to avoid during a heat wave aren't just things like running a marathon or (more likely around here) climbing a 3,500 foot mountain. Exposing yourself to heat for prolonged periods of time without taking the necessary measures to safeguard against it can be dangerous even if you're not performing feats of athleticism.

We all hear of cases where individuals suffer heat stroke or heat exhaustion, and many use the terms interchangeably. But there is a distinct difference between the two, and it’s important to know the difference, as it could save your life. Heat exhaustion is the lesser threat, and more common of the two major heat-related illnesses that can rear its ugly head even after several days of prolonged exposure to heat. Unbalanced or inadequate fluid intake can also increase the propensity to suffer from this ailment. People out camping tend to suffer from this most in the Catskills this time of year; however, the elderly (even sitting at home without an air conditioner), those with pre-existing medical issues, and people overexerting themselves are at risk as well. If you start to become pale or faint, sweat profusely, become dizzy and weak, start having muscle cramps, or become nauseous in the heat, you may be having symptoms of heat exhaustion. Move to a cool place and drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. Do not exert yourself, and if available, take a cool bath or shower. If symptoms persist, seek medical attention.

The most serious heat-related illness is heat stroke. The causes of heat stroke are the same as heat exhaustion, but the results are worse. In heat stroke, the body’s compensatory methods to regulate its temperature can’t keep up with the heat exposure and the body can’t cool itself sufficiently. Sweating stops, and the body’s temperature can rise above 106 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 – 15 minutes. This can lead to brain damage and eventually permanent disability or death very quickly. Individuals will present with an extremely hot, red, and dry skin, severe headache, altered state, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, and possibly be unconscious. This is a true medical emergency; call 911 immediately. The key to treating an individual with heat stroke is getting them to definitive medical care. However, cooling the victim rapidly and moving the victim out of the hot area will assist in returning their temperature to normal. Around 400 people reportedly lose their lives yearly in the United States from heat stroke.

Risk factors for both of these emergencies do not end at exertion in heat. The elderly, individuals with other health conditions, children (particularly from ages 0-4 years), and obese individuals are at risk. Drug or alcohol use, recent illness or fever, certain prescription drugs (“water pills”, psychotropics, Parkinson’s medications, and tranquilizers), diabetes or poor circulation, and even bad sunburn can add substantially to your risk of heat-related illness. Also, high humidity can severely impact perspiration in anyone.

Common sense can be the best factor in deciding whether an activity is OK to engage in during this weather. Quick preventative measures such as packing plenty of fluids wherever you go, wearing light clothing, avoiding strenuous activities and taking frequent breaks, checking the humidity and heat index prior to doing outdoor activities, and avoiding activity in the heat if you fall into a high-risk group will ensure that this summer will be a “cool” one.

Rich Muellerleile is the captain of the Shandaken Ambulance Service. He posts regular safety tips in his new column, Stayin' Alive, on our Shandaken town page.