By Dr Umberto Russo MBBS, FRACGP
During Australia’s long hot summer, our doctors visit patients suffering from the ill effects of heat waves and hot weather. Heat-related illnesses can mean mild symptoms like rash or cramps, to serious and life-threatening conditions such as heat stroke.
Everybody should be aware of the dangers of heat-related illness, and know what signs to look for. Particularly vulnerable are young children, the elderly, and those with an existing medical condition.
Heat-related illnesses include dehydration, cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke – as well as a worsening of symptoms if you have heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease.
The best way to avoid getting symptoms of heat-related illness is to keep cool and drink plenty of water. If the day is going to be a scorcher, make plans to stay indoors or visit an air-conditioned venue such as the cinema or the shopping centre. Avoid gardening or intense physical exercise. If you need to go outside, wear light clothing, a hat, and take water with you.
The temperature of the human body should be kept at 36.1o - 37.8oC. If a person’s temperature goes above this range, the body has to work harder to sweat, and it is easy to become dehydrated. Symptoms of dehydration include fainting, dizziness, thirst, dark yellow urine and loss of appetite.
First aid for a person with these symptoms is to rest somewhere cool, drink plenty of water or diluted fruit juice, and try to cool the person with a damp towel or a spray bottle filled with cool water. If the person continues to feel unwell, seek medical advice.
If you are exercising strenuously or working outside on a hot day, and sweating a lot, the loss of water and salt from your body can cause your muscles to cramp or spasm painfully. This can be a symptom of heat exhaustion. You should stop all exertion, cool the body down with a cold shower or bath, and drink water or diluted fruit juice. Massage the sore limbs and do not return to work in the heat – this could lead to heat stroke. If symptoms do not improve, seek medical advice.
The next step up from cramps is heat exhaustion, when the body has lost excessive water and salt, and responds with the above symptoms of dehydration and cramps, as well as sweating, shallow and fast breathing, very fast pulse, nausea and vomiting, and pale, clammy skin. Lie the patient down in a cool place, cool them down with cold packs or a cold bath, give them small sips of cool fluids and if symptoms do not improve, call an ambulance.
Heat stroke is the body’s response when its core temperature goes above 40.5oC. It is a life-threatening emergency, and immediate steps must be taken to lower the body’s temperature. The patient will present with the symptoms listed above, except now the sweating has stopped and the skin is red, hot, and dry. Other symptoms may be confusion, intense thirst, a rapid pulse, a swollen tongue, aggressive or unusual behaviour, and possible loss of consciousness.
Immediately call 000 and ask for an ambulance, and meanwhile get the patient into the shade, keep them still and cool them with water, even spraying their clothes with a garden hose if necessary. If the person is unconscious, check they are breathing and perform CPR if necessary.
As you can see, heat related illnesses could be extremely dangerous. So this summer, enjoy the fun outdoors but be aware of the danger lurking when the thermometer goes right up. If you or someone you love is feeling unwell, (but it’s not an emergency as described above), and your GP is closed, call or click 13SICK for a bulk billed doctor home visit.
Dr Umberto Russo MBBS (Adelaide) FRACGP is Chief Medical Officer at 13SICK, National Home Doctor Service. He has more than 25 years' experience as both a General Practitioner and as a visiting home doctor, with a special interest in urgent medical care.