With Memorial Day behind us, now is the time to prepare for the upcoming dog days of summer, when temperatures climb fast and extreme heat presents serious health dangers.
Each year, we see news reports of the heat-related deaths of children who were left unattended in overheated vehicles, even for a short time. Pets, likewise, suffer similar fates when left behind in hot cars, even with a window cracked or the air-conditioner blasting.
Heat stroke develops quickly and is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate medical treatment.
So as we make our way into the summer months, we all should heed weather warnings to avoid becoming a victim of heat stroke, or hyperthermia, which occurs when the body is exposed to excessive heat and produces or absorbs more heat than it can release, causing the body’s temperature to climb.
The condition can affect anyone but young children and the elderly are most vulnerable. Additionally, people who work outdoors, persons with mental illness or obesity, and those taking certain types of medications or drinking alcohol, are also at higher risk for heat-related illness.
The following are the most common symptoms of heat stroke. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. They may include:
• Disorientation, agitation or confusion
• Sluggishness or fatigue
• Hot, dry skin that is flushed, but not sweaty
• A high body temperature
• Loss of consciousness
• Rapid heartbeat
The symptoms can resemble other medical conditions, so it’s important to consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Your best defense against heat-related illness, however, is prevention. Staying cool and making simple changes to what you do, what you drink and what you wear in hot weather can help you remain safe and healthy.
The following precautions are not a substitute for medical care, but may help you recognize and respond quickly to warning signs of trouble.
Hydration is key. If a person becomes dehydrated and cannot sweat enough to cool their body, their internal temperature may rise to dangerously high levels, causing heat stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that during outdoor activities of extreme heat, regardless of level of activity, everyone should drink two to four glasses of cool drinks, preferably water, each out.
Beverages that contain alcohol or excessive sugar should be avoided as they make matters worse, speeding up the loss of body fluids.
In extreme heat, check the back seat. In some heartbreaking cases, caretakers had been unaware that a child or a pet has climbed into an unattended vehicle. It’s important that you check the back seats and trunks of your vehicles during episodes of extreme heat.
Protect your pet. Because pets regulate body heat differently than humans, the Humane Society warns against leaving pets in cars for any period of time, even if you’ve left your air-conditioning running.
Dress the part. Wear a hat and light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Carry a spray bottle and mist yourself with cool water throughout the day.
Bottom line: Don’t allow yourself to get to a point of no return. Just being outside in extreme temperatures, even in the shade, can be risky. If you or a family member start feeling “off,” or are unable to cool down, it’s time to go indoors and cool off. Seek medical attention immediately if any symptoms of heat stroke manifest.
Using common sense in the extreme heat will allow you to enjoy outdoor activities, and have a healthy and safe summer.
The author is vice president of operations for American Medical Response in Westchester-Metro New York.