Ask the Pharmacist – July 10, 2018

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Q. If we experience another heat-wave like we just did, how can I best prevent any of the heat related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke?

A. All three heat related ailments are examples of the body overheating. Though heat cramps are the mildest of the 3, don’t let that fool you into thinking they are a walk in the park. They can be very painful as the body experiences involuntary muscle spasms, primarily in the calves but also possibly in the back, arms, abdomen or other muscle groups. Heat cramps are often brought on as a result of fluid and electrolyte loss due to exertion in very hot weather. If you experience heat cramps:

  • Rest the body and try to cool (see the steps listed below for heatstroke as to how best to accomplish this)
  • Drink electrolytes (sports drinks) or clear juice
  • Stretch and massage the muscle gently
  • Avoid strenuous activities for several hours afterwards

Heat exhaustion, on the other hand, occurs when high humidity accompanies high temperatures and physical exertion.

Our bodies are able to regulate our body temperature under normal circumstances but may have difficulties cooling down during extreme heat. When our body begins to overheat we experience heavy sweating (a normal reaction to hot, humid weather) but with prolonged exposure to those high temperatures, especially while exercising, this can lead to the more serious symptoms of heat exhaustion such as:

  • feeling faint or dizzy
  • cool and moist skin
  • fatigue
  • weak but rapid pulse
  • nausea
  • headache
  • low blood pressure upon standing (often felt as a sudden onset of dizziness)

If you are experiencing heat exhaustion, you should stop all activities and let your body rest, rehydrate your body with sports drinks and cool water and relocate to a cool environment. If you are unable to drink or if you do not improve within the hour of having undertaken the steps listed above or if confusion or agitation sets in, seek medical attention promptly.

Heatstroke, the most serious of the heat related ailments, occurs when your body temperature increases very quickly and is not able to cool down. This quick rise in temperature can be detrimental to the brain and other vital organs. Heatstroke may occur as a result of untreated heat exhaustion or heat cramps but can also occur without experiencing either of those. Some symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • body temperature of 40 degrees C or higher (104 degrees F)
  • confusion
  •  heavy sweating
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • flushed skin
  • headache
  • rapid breathing and pulse
  •  fainting
  • unconsciousness

If someone is experiencing heatstroke, call 911 and move the person to a cool environment, remove extra heavier clothing and begin cooling with cool water sponges, water hose or a cool bath/shower. Provide wet towels or ice packs on the neck and trapped areas like armpits and groin and use a fan to help with cooling the individual. If the person is able to drink, offer cool (not very cold) water. Be ready to use CPR (if trained) since it is possible for the person to become unconscious and unresponsive.