The feeling of dizziness developed so slowly the victim didn’t realize she was in distress until she began to have a headache, cramps and nausea. Her friends caught her before she fainted. Fortunately for this hiker, she wasn’t on the trail alone and her companions recognized she was in distress and quickly responded.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 618 people in the United States each year aren’t as lucky. They die from heat-related illness.
Government agencies issue extreme heat advisories when a heat wave hits. That official designation triggers community aid, like cooling centers, but ordinary summer warm weather can also trigger heat-related illness, especially when humidity is high.
Malibu Search and Rescue spends every summer rescuing overheated hikers. It’s easy to set out in the morning when it is still cool, and end up in distress at the bottom of a canyon with no easy way to get aid.
Heat illness occurs when the body is too hot to cool down through evaporation, e.g., sweating. The condition often begins with muscle pains or cramps in the arms, legs or abdomen. Severe health problems can occur rapidly if the initial symptoms aren’t treated immediately.
The symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating; pale, clammy, moist skin; extreme weakness or fatigue; muscle cramps; headache; dizziness or confusion; nausea or vomiting; fast and shallow breathing; and sometimes, fainting.
The CDC recommends that a victim of heat exhaustion be treated immediately with rest in a cool area. Water or a sports drink with electrolytes should be administered in small sips, and cool wet cloths applied to the face and neck. Ideally, the victim should lie down with their feet elevated, and their clothes loosened.
If left untreated, heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke. During heat stroke, the victim becomes so overheated they can longer sweat to regulate body temperature. Heat stroke symptoms include flushed, hot, moist skin or a lack of sweat, high body temperature (often above 103ºF), confusion or dizziness, possible unconsciousness, throbbing headache, and rapid pulse.
Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness. It can cause brain damage, organ failure, and death, unless the victim receives immediate first aid. Emergency responders advise anyone who suspects they are dealing with heat stroke to immediately call 911. The victim should be moved to a cool, shaded area and sprayed with water, or at least fanned to try to quickly lower the body temperature.
High levels of humidity can contribute to heat exhaustion. So can fever, dehydration, certain prescription drugs, and alcohol, pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease, and even sunburn. Children and the elderly are at higher risk.
Physical activity in direct sunlight can greatly increase the risk of heat exhaustion. According to Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) guidelines, working in full sun adds 15 degrees to the heat index. The agency recommends that outdoor workers take extra precautions, and that’s true for anyone engaged in outdoor recreation. Even swimmers can experience heat exhaustion. When water is too warm, it becomes impossible to release enough heat through the skin. Symptoms of hyperthermia—overheating—while swimming can include muscle spasms as well as lack of muscle control or weakness.
Dogs, cats and other animals are also at risk from heat stroke. Several dogs died during hot weather in the summer of 2017 on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains. National Park Service (NPS) personnel put up warning signs, but only after tragedy struck.
Pet symptoms include excessive drooling, increased body temperature, excessive panting, reddened gums, dark or bloody urine, vomiting and/or diarrhea, tremors and seizures. Just like humans, dogs need immediate medical aid during a heat stroke emergency. The dog should be moved into a cool location, given water to drink, and cooled off with water.
According to the ASPCA, breeds with flat faces are more susceptible to heat stroke since they cannot pant as effectively. The list includes English and French bulldogs, boxers, pugs, Chows, Shih Tzu, Japanese Chins, and Pekinese. Cold weather breeds like Newfoundlands, Saint Bernards, and Malamutes are also at increased risk, as are elderly or overweight dogs of all breeds.
Cats can also suffer from heat exhaustion and, just like dogs, flat-faced breeds are more likely to have problems, according to the ASPCA. Providing plenty of cold, fresh water, avoiding exercise during hot conditions, and keeping pets in an air-conditioned space, or in a location with deep shade and air flow is recommended. It might be a good idea to stay there with them during the worst of the hot weather.
Keep cool, stay safe.
Extreme heat advice from the Center for Disease Control. Hot weather care tips for pets from the ASPCA.