The summer of 2012 has been a scorcher, with record highs all over the country. In New Orleans, it's not just the heat, it's also the humidity. The combination can be dangerous or even deadly for outdoor workers, the elderly, children and anyone else who lingers in the sun too long.
Heat-related illnesses are connected to the body's inability to release heat. By drinking fluids and sweating, most people are able to cool themselves sufficiently. However, when conditions become so humid that sweat cannot evaporate, heat stays trapped in the body. Because dehydration also is a concern, prolonged exposure to high temperatures can cause illness even for those who are able to sweat effectively.
Extreme temperatures and high humidity make heat exhaustion a common illness in this part of the country. "Weakness, dizziness, feeling faint, nausea, headache or profuse sweating — these are all signs that the body is having trouble getting rid of heat," says Dr. David St. Germain, an internist at East Jefferson General Hospital. "When those things happen, it's time to cool off."
If you experience any of these symptoms, St. Germain suggests seeking shade or air conditioning if possible. Placing icepacks or cool rags on the back of your neck or sitting in front of a fan also can help you cool down.
In addition to moving to a cool area, increasing your fluid intake is also important. "One of the major concerns is dehydration," St. Germain says. "You lose a tremendous amount of moisture from sweating, and you need to take in sufficient liquids. Most people don't drink enough to replace the fluids that they lose, and that's when they start to get into trouble."
However, not all fluids will help restore your body's hydration. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can actually exacerbate fluid loss because they are diuretics (they aid in expelling fluids from the body). To avoid the unpleasant symptoms of dehydration, it's important to drink fluids often — not just when you are thirsty. Thirst is actually an indicator that you already have become dehydrated.
"Water interspersed with sports drinks helps replace electrolytes when we sweat profusely," St. Germain says. "I recommend an 8-ounce glass of water or sports drink every 30 minutes. Alcohol or caffeine is probably not a good idea."
Heat stroke is a far more serious condition than heat exhaustion or mild dehydration. Someone suffering a heat stroke may experience confusion, dizziness, disorientation, vomiting, and they may stop sweating or have a seizure. This is a medical emergency. St. Germain recommends calling 911 immediately if you observe someone exhibiting any of these symptoms.
The population at greatest risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke tends to be people with excess weight, young children and the elderly. In overweight adults, the extra pounds work as insulation, keeping the body warm under even moderate temperatures. Children under age 4 have not yet fully developed the system that regulates the body's temperature. They also may lack the ability to get out of the heat or the communication skills to let someone know they need to move to a cooler place. Older adults often have a problem getting rid of heat because they do not perspire effectively. Medications frequently used by older adults such as antihistamines, blood pressure medicines and certain tranquilizers may also inhibit sweating.
For those who can't avoid working in high temperatures, St. Germain recommends drinking plenty of liquids and wearing light, breathable clothing. "Frequent breaks are important, too," he says. "Depending on the conditions, you may need to get out of the heat every 15 to 20 minutes."