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AMERICAN FORK — Sue Leininger is an avid hiker, but after a miserable experience with heat exhaustion a couple years ago, she learned her lesson.
Leininger was hiking the Bonneville Shoreline Trail with her daughter when suddenly she started to feel really sick. “We didn’t get started until late in the day. That was our first mistake,” she said. "The second mistake: It was full sun late in the day. I bet it was 100 degrees and it was August.”
It was the perfect combination to get easily overheated.
“My daughter noticed that I was turning beet red, bright red. I could tell that I was starting to not be able to breathe and then I lost all my energy,” Leininger said.
Leininger described how difficult it was for her daughter to help her off the mountain. “We didn’t have enough water. I wasn’t wearing a hat. I wasn’t wearing sunglasses and I don’t even think I was wearing sunscreen — totally unprepared. It was terrible,” she said.
Although she didn’t have to be hospitalized, Leininger had to lay down for several hours because she was so sick to her stomach.
Today, she comes prepared to be in the heat. Leininger tries to get an early start to take advantage of cooler air in the morning and so she isn’t hiking in full sun.
Leininger puts ice cubes in her CamelBak and in a bandana, which she wraps around her neck to keep cool on the move. She said sipping water helps her keep her core temperature in control.
Leininger also tries to hike with a friend who could notice if her face is flushed. Leininger dresses in layers so she can peel down if she feels overheated.
She always wears a hat, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen, and brings along an extra bandana she can dip in a cool stream to wipe her body and face down if she feels hot. Leininger also carries a small form of sugar, like a lollipop, in case she needs a little boost. “It helps cut that really bad taste out of your mouth,” she said.
Intermountain Medical Center’s Dr. Colin Grissom said heat exhaustion often results in feeling lightheaded, dizzy, weak, dehydrated and nausea, but is not life-threatening.
“It’s most effectively treated by getting out of the hot environment into a cool environment,” Grissom said. He encourages people suffering from heat exhaustion to stop exercising, find some shade, rest a little bit and rehydrate.
However, heat stroke is much more serious. “The principle characteristic of heat stroke is altered level of consciousness — somebody is not responsive or not making sense,” Grissom said.
He explained the body goes into shock during heat stroke and a person could die within a few hours if not treated.
“That (heat stroke) is a life-threatening emergency and requires advanced medical treatment in order to reverse it before someone dies,” Grissom said.
Taking precautions like Leininger could be the difference. “I found that keeping my core cooled down was really important for my survival on a hot day,” she said.
Grissom suggested if someone is hiking or exercising outside for longer than two hours they should bring salty snacks, water, and an electrolyte drink with them on the trail.
However, he warns against overhydrating which could lead to a different life-threatening illness. Grissom said drinking to the thirst is a good way to measure how much water the body needs.
He also advises people to watch for heat exhaustion, even if someone is not working out. For instance, an older person overheating in an unconditioned apartment could be just as dangerous.
Leininger said she didn’t want her heat sensitivity to be the reason she stopped hiking. With these preparations, she is ready to take on future hikes.