Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: Take Precautions On Hot Days
Madison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.
Dear Dr. Gerhart: Last weekend I was out on my boat and felt really sick. I broke out in a rash and my wife was worried about me getting a heat stroke. Is this something I need to worry about this summer?
Dear Reader: Taking care of yourself in the heat and humidity can be tough. But if you don't take proper precautions, your health could be in danger of a "heat-related illness." Heat-related illnesses include heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
So what are the differences?
Heat rash is a skin irritation from excessive sweating. It develops when your sweat ducts become blocked and perspiration is trapped under your skin. Sometimes it is itchy or feels prickly. Usually it looks like little red bumps spread over a particular area of the body, such as the arms or legs, and often occurs in skin folds.
For heat rash, treatments focus on reducing sweating and taking away the itch. To reduce sweating, stay in the shade, use a fan and wear moisture-wicking fabrics when you exercise. After outdoor activities, drink plenty of water and recover indoors, out of the sun.
To soothe itching, try calamine lotion, lanolin or an antihistamine such as Benadryl. For severe itching, see your doctor - you might need a steroid cream. Also, if your rash persists after a couple of days, or if you develop a fever, see a doctor.
Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms that happen during heavy exercise. Stretching your muscles, drinking water or an electrolyte fluid such as Gatorade and decreasing the intensity of exercise will help. Try to alternate outdoor activities with indoor ones, or at least find areas in the shade to exercise.
Heat exhaustion is an illness that precedes heat stroke. It is marked by heavy sweating, fast breathing and lightheadedness. A person's temperature is elevated, but usually less than 103 degrees.
At the first signs of heat exhaustion sit down - or better yet, lay down. Get out of the sun immediately. Take a cold shower, or place cold cloths on the face, armpits and groin. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and rehydrate. You should drink two to four glasses (16 to 32 ounces) of cool fluids each hour during heavy exercise in a hot environment.
Heat stroke is usually marked by confusion, staggering, rapid heart rate and a temperature greater than 103 degrees. Sometimes, heat stroke in the elderly can appear as dry, flushed skin without sweating. This is a sign that the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature by sweating. Call 911 or seek medical care immediately.
The body's natural cooling mechanism, sweating, is usually enough to cool us off. However, when the humidity is very high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat.
Those at greatest risk for heat stroke are infants and children up to 4 years of age, and people greater than age 65. Outdoor summer jobs also increase your risk, as do certain medications, including diuretics.
Although Wisconsin is not a tropical climate, we do have our fair share of humidity. If you feel you might be at increased risk for heat stroke, talk to your doctor. We want you to have a healthy and enjoyable summer.
Date Published: 06/26/2012