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Summer Health Hazards, Part 5 - Heat Illness

June 22, 2017

It’s one of “Summer’s Health Hazards” – the heat.

“Hot weather can be deadly. We know from research that looks at the adverse effects of the hot weather during a heat wave, which can trigger heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems, that there are more deaths among people being treated for cardiac disease,” said Dr. Heba Wassif from the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center.

While the heat – considered the number one weather-related killer in the United States – affects some more than others, those at greatest risk include adults with existing heart and other chronic diseases, the elderly and children, as well as the mentally ill.

“Sweating is the body’s defense mechanism to cool down, but at the same time it results in the loss of more fluid than usual from your body. This can cause your blood pressure to drop and your heart rate to increase to compensate for your fluid loss, so you may feel palpitations as your heart beats faster,” said Dr. Wassif.

An impaired cooling response

“People with heart failure don’t do very well in the heat because they have an impaired cooling response. Heart failure patients have difficulty pumping enough blood to the skin, which serves as a cooling agent, resulting in difficulty controlling their body temperature,” she added.

Dr. Wassif noted that many heart failure patients are also on diuretics to reduce fluid retention in their bodies, which can exacerbate dehydration because of an increased urine output.

Other medications can also cause problems coping with the heat, including beta blockers used to control high blood pressure, which slow the heartbeat and your ability to circulate blood quick enough to regulate body heat, as well as some antidepressants and antihistamines which can block sweating.

Extreme heat affects the body’s ability to safely regulate its temperature, often resulting in heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or heat cramps.

Sweating is the body’s natural defense to cooling itself. However, when humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly and resulting in a rapid rise of body temperature.

The warning signs

Warning signs of an oncoming heat-related illness could include excessive sweating, leg cramps, flushed skin, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headache and rapid pulse. If you experience any of these symptoms, and after drinking liquids and getting into the shade or indoors you don’t feel better soon, call your doctor or visit your local emergency department.

Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability, including damage to the brain and other vital organs, and requires immediate emergency medical treatment. Warning signs of heat stroke can vary, but may include the following: body temperature of 103º F or higher, dizziness, throbbing headache, nausea, confusion, a rapid, strong pulse, and in extremely critical cases, unconsciousness.

“The best advice I can give to anyone in the extreme heat, whether healthy or predisposed to any health conditions, especially cardiac disease, is to take it slow and easy and not exert yourself. Try to stay out of the heat during the hottest part of the day, usually between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and sugar-free drinks while avoiding alcohol or caffeinated beverages,” said Dr. Wassif.

The Baystate cardiologist noted a good way to determine if you are hydrated is to check the color of your urine – a clear or light yellow urine means you are adequately hydrated, while dark urine, often referred to as the color of apple juice, means you are dehydrated.

To make an appointment

In addition to the heat, other Summer Health Hazards include recreational water illness, sunburns, food-borne illnesses, exercising in the summer, and ticks.

To make an appointment with a cardiologist in the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center, call 413-794-2273.