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As Heat Waves Increase, People Should Know How Extreme Temps Affect the Body


Sun rises in Encinitas
The sun rises over Encinitas on a hot morning. REUTERS/Mike Blake/file photo

Recently, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for San Diego County. The warning stated, “Dangerously hot conditions with temperatures up to 100° F,” were possible. It cautioned that extreme heat significantly increases the potential for heat-related illnesses, particularly for people working or participating in outdoor activities.

Unfortunately, this warning has proven to be very accurate. In San Diego, heat-related illnesses are on the rise as temperatures increase. Living in our warm climate puts our population at risk, despite being a coastal city, and we continue to see many cases in the emergency room.

Additionally, the high temperatures we’re experiencing are especially concerning for the aging population. Older adults and people with cardiovascular or neurologic disorders are at higher risk, simply because the temperature regulating mechanism becomes less effective with time and disease.

How Body Temperature Is Controlled

Body temperature is regulated by the hypothalamus region of the brain. The brain works with the nervous system to regulate the dilation, or opening, of the blood vessels to allow more blood flow to the skin. This allows body heat, via body fluids and salts, to be expelled throughout the pores and evaporate into the air.

If a person becomes too dehydrated and has expelled a significant amount of fluids through sweat, they no longer have body fluid to sweat out and have lost the ability to regulate heat. This will then cause the body temperature to soar if they are still in a hot environment. This rapid increase in temperature can then cause heat stroke.

What’s more, when the combination of dry-air heat and humidity — known as the wet-bulb temperature — exceeds the temperature of the body, sweat cannot evaporate. At this point, an individual can no longer cool down.

Preventing Heat Stroke

The National Weather Service recommends San Diegans monitor the latest weather forecasts and warnings for updates. To avoid heat-related illnesses, drink plenty of fluids, stay in an air-conditioned indoor space and stay out of the sun.

You should also check on relatives and neighbors. And young children and pets should never be left unattended in vehicles, especially in warm or hot weather, when car interiors can quickly reach lethal temperatures.

Additionally, it is extremely important to recognize dehydration and heat exhaustion to prevent the progression to heat stroke. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Loss of appetite and feeling sick
  • Excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin
  • Cramps in the arms, legs and stomach
  • Fast breathing or pulse
  • A high temperature of 100.4° F or above
  • Being very thirsty

If someone has heat exhaustion, it’s vital you do the following:

  1. Move them to a cool place.
  2. Get them to lie down and raise their feet slightly.
  3. Have them drink plenty of water. Sports or rehydration drinks are also OK.
  4. Cool their skin by spraying or sponging them with cool water and fanning them. Cold packs placed around the armpits or neck are also effective.

Stay with them until they’re better. They should start to cool down and feel better within 30 minutes.

However, continue to watch them for additional symptoms of heat stroke. These include:

  • Sweating stopped, but they still feel hot
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Intense headache, much more severe than what one normally feels when spending time in the sun
  • Feeling hot, with bright red skin
  • Seizure

If a person with heat stroke is left untreated, their organs can go into failure. This can cause death or permanent injury. Call 911 and take them to an emergency room immediately.

Above all, continue to practice caution during the heat wave, take care of one another and seek care when needed.

Dr. James Elia is the medical director of the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Emergency Department.


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