Nutrition-wise blog

Stay cool — How to prevent heat-related illness

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. August 3, 2016

One hot summer morning I got a call from the emergency room. My elderly father had been hospitalized for dehydration and heat stroke. He hadn't shown up for his 6:00 a.m. tee time, so his golfing buddy decided to check on him. He found dad semiconscious, called 911 and saved his life.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, 2012 was the hottest year on record. Nearly one-third of the U.S. population experienced 10 or more days in temperatures above 100 F (37.8 C). Experts project that extreme heat events will become more frequent, last longer and be more severe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that around 600 heat-related deaths occur each year. Heat-related illnesses include heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, and heat stroke can lead to death.

Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale, clammy skin; a fast but weak pulse; fainting; and nausea or vomiting. Signs of heat stroke include hot, red skin that may be dry or moist; a rapid pulse; high body temperature (above 103 F, or 39 C); confusion; and change in consciousness.

Are you at risk? Adults age 65 or older, infants and children age 4 or younger are most vulnerable to heat-related illness because they have a limited ability to regulate body temperature. Other factors that increase the risk include:

  • High heat and humidity. Usually public media announce that temperature and humidity meet or exceed criteria that can be dangerous.
  • Chronic medical condition, such as heart disease, pulmonary disease, poor circulation, poorly controlled diabetes or mental illness, and some medications, such as diuretics.
  • Acute illness with fever, diarrhea or vomiting, and inability to keep liquids down.
  • Conditions that make it more difficult to regulate body temperature, such as being obese or being sunburned.
  • Drinking alcohol or beverages containing large amounts of sugar.
  • Spending time outdoors because of your job or by choice when heat and humidity are high.

Do you know what to do to prevent heat-related illness? Diet plays a role. Here's how to reduce your risk of heat-related illness:

  • Stay cool. If you have air-conditioning, use it and share it with those who don't. Take a cool shower or bath, or use a mist bottle to cool down. If you're using an electric fan, don't direct the air at you. The blowing air will dehydrate you faster. Instead, direct the air to remove hot air from the room — this will draw cooler air in. Also keep in mind that when the temperature is in the high 90s, an electric fan will not prevent heat-related illness.
  • Drink more fluids. Don't wait until you're thirsty. Drink enough cool fluids, such as water or sports drinks, each hour to maintain normal urine output. Avoid alcohol, drinks that are high in sugar and high in caffeine as they can cause you to lose more fluid. If you're on a fluid-restricted diet or take diuretics, contact your doctor for advice on how much you should drink.
  • Be informed. Monitor the local weather forecast. Know the at-risk people in your neighborhood — kid and adults — and check in on them. If you don't have air conditioning, know where you can go to stay cool. Shopping malls and public libraries are usually air-conditioned. Your local health department may be able to guide you to a shelter. Go there — even if only for a few hours.
  • Eat right. Keep your house cool by preparing meals that don't need to be cooked in the oven or on the stove. Eat foods that are higher in water content, such as fruit (watermelon and other melons, grapes, oranges and other citrus, tomatoes) and vegetables (cucumbers, bell peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce and other leafy greens). Fruits and vegetables not only provide water they also help replace minerals lost via sweat. However, be aware that too much fruit juice may cause diarrhea in some cases, which can make dehydration worse. Don't take salt tablets unless directed by your doctor. The easiest and safest way to replace mineral loss is with food.

I hope this is helpful. Be aware. Be prepared. Stay cool when it's hot. Care for yourself and those who are at risk — you may save a life.

Aug. 03, 2016