I remember laughing at Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner while watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child. I can still see Coyote walking slowly through the sweltering desert, sun high in the sky, sweating, tongue hanging out, about to collapse from heat, hunger, and thirst. Then, BEEP! BEEP! The Road Runner would fly past, and the chase was on with a perfectly revived Coyote.
If only fixing heat stroke were that quick and easy.
As a primary care physician who treats patients with heat-related illnesses, I know that heat stroke is certainly no laughing matter. Each summer, a heat wave (or ten) rolls over the United States, precipitating a rash of death and hospitalizations related to what is, in doctor-speak, “severe non-exertional hyperthermia.”
Let’s stick to calling it heat stroke, and here are some tips on how to prevent this potentially deadly condition.
Heat stroke is when a person’s core body temperature rises too high (often more than 104 F) because high environmental temperature (typically over 90 F) and humidity (over 70% relative humidity) prevent the body from cooling through its normal means of sweating and breathing. As heat stroke develops, our heart beats fast, our lungs breathe fast, we feel dizzy and nauseated, our muscles cramp, and we become confused, eventually losing consciousness entirely.
Without medical intervention, heat stroke is often fatal. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes on average, about 658 Americans die each year from heat stroke (pdf).
Victims of heat stroke can be of any age, but more often it is the elderly, particularly those over the age of 70, who suffer. As people age, our bodies’ ability to cool declines, and the elderly often take medication that further impairs this ability. In addition, older people may not be aware of when a dangerous heat wave arrives, and may not have working air conditioning in their homes, nor have anyone to check on them. As a physician, I know from experience how the heat of summer and the cold of winter test the lives of the very old.
Hydration, rest, and finding a place to cool down are the keys to preventing heat stroke. If you don’t have an air-conditioned home or car, steps to take include:
- Wearing light, breathable clothing.
- Avoiding time in direct sunlight.
- Not exercising during the hot hours of the day.
- Spraying yourself with water and sitting in front of a fan.
- Taking a cool bath or shower.
- Placing a cold pack on your neck or armpit.
In a heat wave, please take time to check in with your older neighbours, family, and friends, to make sure they have the means to stay cool.
Fans help, not by lowering the air temperature, but by causing air movement over the skin, causing evaporation of sweat which lowers the body temperature. So fans are useful when there is no air conditioning, but having an air-conditioned space is best.
Heat stroke is preventable—just stay cool and hydrated. Simple, right? But during a heat wave, that is easier said than done, particularly for the poor and elderly. If you should encounter someone having the symptoms of heat stroke, call 911 to get them to an emergency room for evaluation and treatment.
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Stepping Toward Longevity
A new study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that walking can lead to a longer life. So, if you’ve started a walking routine during the pandemic or are keeping a score of steps on a fitness tracker, you could be in luck.
And you don’t even need to aim for the magical (and completely arbitrary) 10,000 steps per day. The benefits of walking are relative: If you’re only getting about 2,000 steps per day now, getting to 4,000 will come along with some added benefits.
This new study found that people who took 7,000 steps per day had a 50 to 70% lower risk of dying from all causes during an 11-year follow-up, compared to those who took fewer steps.
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