Mommy Medicine: Understanding heat exhaustion and how to treat it

Mommy Medicine: Understanding heat exhaustion and how to treat it

By Suzanne Carlile, Contributor | Posted - Jul. 11, 2011 at 7:44 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The world of health and medicine can be confusing to many parents. But Nurse Suzy is here to help clarify some of the issues that are important to you and your family.

Instead of answering a question this week, I thought it would be helpful to discuss prevention measures and treatments for a common summer ailment: heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion is very important to pay attention to during these hot summer months. Many people die from overexposure to heat every year, and it can affect anyone. Without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke — a life-threatening condition.

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Heat exhaustion is caused by exposure to high temperatures, particularly when combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activity. For example:

  • Hiking, biking or participating in any other outdoors activity where you are in the sun for an extended period of time
  • Working in your yard for an extended period of time
  • Going for walks during the hot part of the day
  • Extended periods of exercise

Factors that increase a person’s likelihood of suffering from heat exhaustion include:

  • Dehydration, which impedes your body's ability to sweat and maintain a normal temperature
  • Alcohol use, which can affect your body's ability to regulate your temperature
  • Overdressing, particularly in clothes that don't allow sweat to evaporate easily
  • Not having the ability to sweat (i.e. children rarely sweat), as sweating is a way for the body to cool itself.

If you do get heat exhaustion, it will usually start with symptoms similar to the flu. You can have nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness and muscle cramps. These symptoms show up in a few minutes or hours, and sometimes even a day after you have experienced the extended heat exposure.

To treat heat exhaustion:

  • Drink plenty of fluid, a little at a time. Every half hour drink one cup of clear fluid and slowly increase your intake of fluid. Once your body goes into heat exhaustion, taking in a lot of fluid will make you sick. Start drinking anyway, just go slow.
  • Replace sodium and potassium that your body has lost through sweating. This will help prevent muscle cramping.

An important note: Staying in the shade, or even inside a building all day, may not prevent you from becoming overexposed to heat. If your body does not receive cooling, you can get heat exhaustion and not even know it.

Again, without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke. If you or a person you are with begins to experience the following symptoms, seek imediate medical treatment:

  • high body temperature
  • the absense of sweating, with red or flushed dry skin
  • rapid pulse
  • difficulty breathing
  • strange behavior (hallucinations, confusion, agitation, disorientation)
  • seizure and/or coma

Suzanne Carlile, "Nurse Suzy," has been a nurse since 1982. Her main focus is critical care and nursing education. She holds a master's degree in nursing, is a Certified Emergency Nurse, and a member of NNSDO Intermountain West Chapter.

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