Tahlequah Daily Press

August 26, 2013

Heat exhaustion a persistent summer threat

The best solution is to avoid the problem.

By SEAN ROWLEY
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — srowley@tahlequahdailypress.com

Though summer 2013 has not been as brutal as the last couple, area medical professionals warn people to be aware of the dangers of heat exhaustion.

It’s a common ailment during mid-year, and a summer with lower temperatures may not greatly affect its incidence.

“It has been cooler and I think people in the southern part of the country are more conscious of it, but hospitals and clinics still report a lot of cases,” said Kenneth Gibson, a doctor of osteopathic medicine for the NeoHealth clinic in Hulbert. “I got it this spring while digging potatoes from my garden. I stopped, drank plenty of ice water, stuck my head under the faucet, then cramped up all during the night.”

Several symptoms can indicate heat exhaustion, including fatigue, muscle cramps, confusion, rapid heartbeat, pale skin and dark urine. Many cases can be treated at home, but those afflicted must be monitored carefully and receive professional medical care if symptoms don’t improve.

Whether in an emergency room or a backyard, the treatment is much the same: hydrating and cooling the body.

“At the hospital, a patient may receive fluids intravenously and medication for cramps,” Gibson said. “It is important to know how to prevent, recognize and treat heat exhaustion in others and yourself.”

Those with heat exhaustion must first be removed from the heat to shade or air conditioning. They should receive plenty of water and remove all unnecessary clothing. Towels dipped in cool water and fans can lower skin temperatures. A patient can take a cool - but not cold - shower or bath. A wide-ranging, rapid change in external temperatures can stress the heart, which is already under stress during heat exhaustion.

Children up to age 4 and adults over 65 are more vulnerable to heat illnesses, as are those with fever, sunburn, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart, lung or kidney disease.

While people living in Oklahoma climes are aware, and sometimes experience, the onset of heat exhaustion during overexertion in hot weather, Gibson said a longer-term condition is often called “heat exhaustion” by medical professionals.

“It is often diagnosed in people who are cutting and throwing hay, or roofers,” he said. “It is a danger to anyone who works outside away from shade in high temperatures.”

Non-sudden heat exhaustion can be caused by failure to fully rehydrate over a few days.

“They feel fine Monday and Tuesday, they get tired Wednesday, they’re hurting on Thursday, and by Friday, they are down,” Gibson said. “It can be a precursor to heat stroke and can progress to kidney shutdown, organ damage and muscle fatigue and breakdown.”

There are two causes of heat exhaustion: water depletion and salt depletion. Thirst, headache and weakness indicate lack of water.

Gibson said any prevention or treatment should include water.

“We once handled a case of a kid who was roofing,” he said. “His boss had him take salt tablets as a preventative measure, but by Friday the kid’s kidneys were trying to shut down.”

Gibson mentioned another “excellent” tactic to avoid heat exhaustion: avoid alcohol.

“People taking a lot of medications need to be vigilant, also,” he said. “Some medications keep you from sweating as much. It is a very serious warning sign if you stop sweating on a hot day.”