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Preparation is key to avoiding potentially dangerous heat-related illness this summer

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With near record temperatures this week in Virginia, one emergency medicine doctor says it’s important to recognize signs and symptoms of a heat-related illness to be prepared for exercise or work outdoors this summer.

“​​Understanding the symptoms of exposure to extreme heat and managing the effects is crucial and that includes knowing early signs of heat exhaustion to prevent progression to heatstroke,” said Dr. Stephanie Lareau, from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

There were more than 2,300 heat-related deaths last year, and most of the deaths were preventable.

“Being prepared and educating yourself on the effects of heat are key to prevention,” said Lareau.

Heat exhaustion is considered a less severe precursor to heatstroke.

“To help an individual suffering from heat exhaustion first prevent further exposure by getting them into the shade or air conditioning if possible,” said Lareau. “Then begin cooling them with immersion in cold water or misting them with cool water.”

Heatstroke is a potentially life-threatening medical event.

“The hallmark of heatstroke is an altered mental state, such as confusion or inability to walk,” said Lareau. “You should call 911 and work on cooling the person down. Simple things such as getting them out of direct sun, spraying them with cool water, and immersing them in water (if they are awake and able to help) can help while you are awaiting more aid. The fastest and preferred way to cool someone is immersion in cold water.”

It’s also important if you are working outdoors in extreme summer heat to stay hydrated.

“Make sure you have water available and are drinking it at regular intervals,” said Lareau. “A good rule of thumb is to make sure your urine looks light yellow to clear. Take frequent breaks and get out of the sun. If possible, try to get your work done during early morning or late evening when the temperatures are lower.”

Just as with work, get outside early for workouts to avoid midday heat.

“Wear light-colored, breathable clothing, and be sure to drink plenty of fluids,” she said. “Exercise tolerance can decrease when it’s hot, so plan accordingly. Slowly increase exercise to help your body become acclimatized to increasing temperatures.

“On a day with a high heat index, consider going for a swim or running on a treadmill indoors instead of running outdoors.”

If you plan to hike or participate in a long outdoor activity, remember that in hot weather, you need more water than usual.

“If you expect to rely on streams or creeks for your water supply, talk to those familiar with the area to make sure they aren’t dry. If you’ll be doing strenuous activities, it’s essential to bring electrolyte drinks as well to avoid exercise-induced hyponatremia, which is low sodium or salt levels that can lead to confusion and even seizures.”

It’s also important for people on certain medications to check with their doctor before any strenuous outdoor activity.

“As with any outdoor activity, it’s also helpful to get acclimated to the heat before embarking on ambitious adventures,” said Lareau. “If you are on medications for blood pressure, heart problems, or psychiatric conditions, you should talk to your doctor about these medications and your outdoor plans. Some medications can predispose individuals to heat illness or dehydration.”

Heat exhaustion symptoms

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Sweating profusely
  • Cool, pale, clammy skin
  • Vomiting, nausea
  • Rapid pulse
  • Muscle cramps

Heatstroke symptoms

  • Pulsating headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Hot, red, dry skin
  • Temperature above 103
  • Vomiting, nausea
  • Rapid, weak pulse

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.