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  Vol. 24, No. 10  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next June 1, 2002 

Temperature Rising? Could be Heat Stroke

The University of Texas
Health Science Center at Houston

The "good olí summertime" may not be so good if summerís scorching heat gets you down. A professor at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston warns that triple-digit temperatures can be deadly if adequate precautions are not taken.

"Itís no secret that Houston is one of the hottest and most humid cities in the country and has the toughest environment in which to keep cool," said Dr. Brent King, chairman of emergency medicine at UT-Houston. "Heat illness sets in when our bodiesí natural cooling mechanism is shut down, preventing sweat from evaporating off our skin to cool us off."

Last year, more than 140 Texans died of heat-related illness. The most vulnerable are the elderly, young children, people with other illnesses, or those without access to air conditioning.

Heat strokes are life threatening, Dr. King said, because the bodyís temperature control and perspiration systems shut down, preventing the body from cooling down. Heat stroke can start off as heat exhaustion, which typically occurs during physical activity in a hot, humid environment.

Early warning signs of heat-related illness include heavy sweating, dehydration, muscle cramps, tiredness, dizziness and faintness. More severe symptoms like hot, inflamed skin, throbbing headache, nausea, rapid heart beat, delirium and unconsciousness can occur and be fatal if left untreated.

Dr. King said the best defense is prevention.

"Stay indoors and, if possible, stay in an air-conditioned place," he advised. "Electric fans may provide some relief, but if the temperature is near 100 degrees, fans wonít prevent heat-related illness."

King offers more tips on how to keep cool:

  • Drink water even when youíre not thirsty and regardless of your activity level. Avoid nonalcoholic, caffeinated and sugary beverages.
  • Wear sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and light, loose clothing. A sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher and light-colored clothes can help reflect the sunís harsh rays.
  • Plan strenuous outdoor activity for early morning or in the evening when the temperature is lower.
  • Take frequent breaks when working outside.
  • If you donít have air-conditioning, cool off with a cool shower or bath or visit an air-conditioned place like a shopping mall, library or recreation center.
  • Never leave a person or a pet inside a closed, parked car in hot weather.
  • At first signs of heat illness, move to a cooler place, rest a few minutes, then slowly drink a cool beverage. Seek medical attention immediately if conditions do not improve.
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