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Heat Waves and Heat-Related Illnesses: When the Heat Rises, So Do the Risks

By  Anna Kučírková Aug 01, 2019

Summertime, for many in Croatia, is the best part of the year. Weeklong trips to the beach. Weekends spent lounging and grilling by the pool. Summer also brings with it heat. In some portions of the country, it can be oppressive.

Of course, mercury busting temperatures are nothing new during the months between June and August. However, if it seems that in more recent years temperatures have been uncomfortably warm, you’re not mistaken. Let’s sweat it out a bit and look closer at heat – more specifically, heat waves – and what they can do to the human body and how to protect yourself when the temperature starts rising.

What is a Heat Wave?

A heat wave happens when high pressure creates a dome of air over a specific region. This dome traps air at ground level and prevents it from rising. Without this rising air, rain can’t develop, and there’s no mechanism to prevent the hot air from growing even hotter. Until the dome of high-pressure moves or is displaced by another weather system, the blistering hot air remains in place.

In a heat wave, the temperature rises to a point well above the norm, doing so over a period of time. Prolonged bouts of heat can last several days, weeks, or, in the most extreme cases, months. While a heat wave in a warm climate may not be an extraordinary weather occurrence, its anticipated that heat waves in general – and their severity – are expected to become more frequent as temperatures rise globally. This includes areas not typically associated with the sweltering heat of summer.

water fan in dubrovnik

Trying to keep cool in Dubrovnik - Photo Tonci Plazibat 

Effects of Heat on the Human Body

There’s no question that heat can be uncomfortable. Excessive heat can be unbearable.
Aside from the constant pounding of sunlight or the searing air that accompanies an outbreak of high temperatures, prolonged heat exposure can be life-threatening. Between agonizing symptoms and loss of bodily function, if overexposure to heat is left untreated, it will lead to death.

 

 

Here are five of the most common heat-related conditions and illnesses:

Dehydration

Dehydration results from our bodies losing more water than what is being put in. Although dehydration happens in many non-heat related situations, exposure to heat will speed up the processes that lead to the condition. Often this occurs without the person who is suffering from dehydration realizing it before it’s too late.

In weather such as a heat wave, our bodies will sweat more than usual to combat the increased temperatures. The rapid increase in water loss leads to symptoms both minor – headaches, muscle cramps, thirst and dry mouth – and far more severe – dizziness, nausea, confusion, rapid heartbeat or breathing, and fainting.

Everyone is susceptible to dehydration. However, infants and young children, older adults, people with illnesses or chronic disease, and even otherwise healthy individuals with active outdoor lifestyles are most at risk.

washing face in public fountain in dubrovnik 2019

Use every chance to top up on water - Photo Tonci Plazibat 

Heat Cramp

The first of four conditions caused by the overheating of the body or hyperthermia, heat cramps develop through an excessive loss of fluids, salt, and other minerals. These cramps may be incredibly painful, lasting longer than non-heat related cramping.

Muscles most often impacted by heat cramp include those in your abdomen, arms, and calves. Individuals who exercise heavily, particularly in outdoor environments, are most susceptible.

three ladies in white in dubrovnik

Wearing white is always a good idea - Photo Tonci Plazibat 

Heat Rash

When you sweat, it helps cool your body’s overall temperature. When this sweat becomes trapped beneath blocked pores in your skin, it leads to an outbreak of light, red blistering.

The least critical of the heat-related illnesses, heat rash is nonetheless an uncomfortable condition. Larger blisters may form, and intense itching may accompany the rash depending on its severity.

Although the vast majority of cases clear up within a couple of days, the worst instances involve painful swelling of the skin or lymph nodes, pus discharging from the blisters, or fever or chills.

Heat Exhaustion

When suffering from heat exhaustion, it’s typically the first indication that your body is rapidly starting to overheat. Symptoms include profuse sweating, a very rapid or feeble pulse, dizziness, nausea, severe cramping, and headaches, or increased fatigue. You may also have skin that is cool and moist to the touch even if you are in hot conditions.

Heat exhaustion can occur simply from being in the heat for too long. Its onset may happen sooner if you are performing strenuous activity while in the heat or heat combined with humid conditions (high heat index). Rapid temperature changes can also cause exhaustion, especially for those not accustomed to warmer areas.

As with other heat-related conditions, young children and older adults may experience exhausting faster than others, though obesity can also accelerate exhaustion symptoms due to the body retaining heat.

bikini beach dubrovnik 2019

Take a dip in the Adriatic Sea - Photo DV 

Heat Stroke

When your body reaches critical levels of overheating, you can fall victim to heat stroke. The most serious of the heat-based illnesses, individuals that encounter heat stroke require immediate medical attention.

When the body faces prolonged exposure to excessive heat, the body’s core temperature rises. Heat stroke happens with that core number reaches or exceeds 104°F. Coupled with fluid loss (dehydration), your body can no longer regulate its temperature.
Symptoms can appear immediately and include nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat and breathing, inability to sweat, severe headache or light-headedness, or confusion and disorientation. An individual may also suffer from seizures and unconsciousness.

If not treated immediately – which involves lowering the body’s core temperature – heat stroke can be fatal.

Final Thoughts: How to Stay Cool During a Heatwave

The world is getting hotter. Increased temperatures indicate an increase in heat waves and with them, heat-related illnesses. Protecting yourself, however, is a relatively simple combination of diligence and common sense – practically all of which you have seen or heard before:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, and consume more when active or outside in the heat of the day. If you’re in a place with no clean water source, a water bottle with a built-in filter can keep you hydrated in unsafe conditions.
  • Be mindful of what your body is losing when it sweats – minerals – and take care to replace them through sports drinks or your diet.
  • Don’t overexert yourself and take frequent breaks if outside in excessive heat or even when physically active in average, summertime temps.
  • Wear sunscreen when outside (no matter the temperature) and choose appropriate clothes for the conditions – lightweight and light-coloured.
  • If you don’t have to be outdoors in the heat, stay inside, preferably places with air conditioning; if you do have to be out during the summer, schedule your activities during the coolest stretches whenever possible.

We can’t escape the heat – experts predict it to become a more significant burden in the coming decades. Knowing the risks of scorching temperatures – and the heat waves they produce – allows you to take preventative measures to “beat the heat” long before it beats you.

Adapted from an original article on Business Connect by Anna Kučírková