June was one of the hottest on record in Chicago, and July's already off to a very steamy start. With these near-record temperatures in Chicago and across the U.S., more people are at risk for heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Rush University Medical Center family medicine physician Kush Desai, MD, discusses the distinguishing factors of common heat-related illnesses and provide tips to help you stay cool and safe during the scorching summer months.
What to know about heat illnesses
Heat illnesses can occur when the body is not able to properly cool itself. Desai says that while the body normally cools itself by sweating, this might not be enough to combat extreme heat.
“In some cases, your body’s temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down, which has the potential to cause damage to vital organs,” he explains.
Here are some common heat-related illnesses to be aware of:
- Heat exhaustion is a condition that can occur after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures; it’s often is accompanied by dehydration. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress into a more serious heat illness known as heat stroke.
- Heat stroke is a condition that can happen when your body gets too hot. It is considered a medical emergency; if not treated quickly, it can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of heat illnesses
Despite the fact that all heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, heat-related illness kills more people — roughly 600 to 700 — in the U.S. each year than any other weather-related event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here are the signs and symptoms of common heat illnesses to watch for:
- Heat exhaustion
- High body temperature
- High heart rate and low blood pressure
- Dehydration and electrolyte losses
- Extreme weakness
- Trouble walking
- Fainting or light-headedness
- Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Heat stroke
- High body temperature
- Profuse sweating
- Irrational behavior
- Emotional instability
- Altered consciousness
- Coma or seizure
Who is at risk for heat illness?
If exposed to certain risk factors, anyone can be susceptible to a heat-related illness. However, there are several factors that can further contribute to the effect a heat illness can have on your body:
- High body mass index, or obesity
- Old age
- Environmental conditions, such as high humidity
- Poor physical fitness
- Sleep deprivation
- Health conditions that predispose you to dehydration and malnutrition
- Intense physical exertion. High-level athletes are susceptible to heat illnesses, especially when training outdoors. In fact, the CDC reports that heat illness during practice or competition is a leading cause of death and disability among U.S. high school athletes, and a number of college football players have died due to complications from heat illness as well.
“Usually athletes have trainers and fellow athletes around them to help prevent heat illness from occurring, but it’s important to remain vigilant regardless,” Desai says. “That’s also true for recreational athletes: Take precautions against heat illness and act quickly if you notice any signs of trouble.”
Tips to avoid heat stroke and heat exhaustion
It’s important to take cooling precautions in hot temperatures to avoid a heat illness, including the following:
- Exercise early in the day, before it gets too hot or after sunset.
- Manage the intensity of your activity, and take breaks when you exercise.
- Stay hydrated! Make sure to drink enough fluids, such as water or sports drinks, while you are outdoors. And do not drink alcohol or a caffeinated beverage before exercising, as they both can dehydrate you.
- Put a cold pack or cool cloth on your neck, armpits or groin.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothes.
- Wear sunscreen and reapply frequently
- Spray yourself with cool water.
- Move into the shade or go into an air-conditioned building or car.
- Do not leave children in cars.
- Take a cool shower or bath.
- Pay attention to warnings about high temperatures, and avoid being outdoors as much as possible on days you know will be extremely hot.
- Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If you see signs, take immediate action.
Also, check on at-risk relatives and friends during heat waves to make sure they are able to stay cool — and to help if needed. Especially for people who don’t have air conditioning, the summer heat can quickly make living spaces dangerous.