Preventing and Treating Heat-Related Illness
By Jennifer Luitwieler
Summer for Oklahoma children means camps, classes and freedom from school. It can also mean longer periods of time in the brutal heat, which can lead to heat-related illnesses. According to the CDC website, more people died of heat related illnesses in the years 1979 to 2003 than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined. In 2003 alone, 300 people died from heat-related illnesses. The good news is that heat problems are preventable.
Dr. Kristi Kline, medical director at the Tulsa Health Department, said that “because kids do not dissipate heat as well as adults, or sweat as much,” they are more susceptible to heat-related illness. She said that while heat stress looks the same in children as adults, kids reach that level faster. Some of the symptoms include fatigue, weakness, vision impairment and a rapid pulse.
“[Kids suffering from heat stress] can become inattentive, lose focus and can suffer from nausea and vomiting,” Dr. Kline added.
She suggests implementing measures that will prevent such symptoms. Among the most important preventive measures is to drink more water.
“Kids don’t need the electrolytes or sugar from sports drinks,” Dr. Kline said.
Caffeinated beverages should be avoided because they don’t help to hydrate. Cool water is the best drink to stay hydrated, and frequent water breaks are important, even if children say they don’t feel thirsty.
“By the time they say they’re thirsty, they can be well on their way to dehydration,” Dr. Kline said.
Staying indoors between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is another step to take to avoid heat stress. Children can play outside before and after these times. If staying inside is not an option, make sure children are drinking, dressed in loose and light colored clothing and have access to shady places to rest. The CDC offered additional steps such as avoiding hot or heavy foods, which can add heat to the body, and to keep the head and face shaded.
The CDC website highlights several different heat related illnesses, ranging from minor to significant. Sunburn, in extreme cases can appear as blisters, and is treated with cool compresses. Appearing as a “red cluster of pimples or blisters,” heat rash is most evident on the “neck, chest, groin, under the breasts and in the elbow creases.” And people who do strenuous outdoor activity, such as sports camps, may experience heat cramps. Given fluid and shade, the muscles should relax within an hour.
More dangerous illnesses include heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when a person’s body is unable to control its temperature. The body temperature can rise to 106 degrees or higher, which can cause permanent disability or death. Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat illness and both are treated by rapidly cooling the body.
Since heat illnesses can come on quickly in children, adults should be aware of the symptoms and treatments. Dr. Kline said to call a doctor immediately if a child loses consciousness or shows mental confusion. Use any means available to cool the victim’s skin: soak a bandana in cold water and apply it to the neck or face, mist water on the person and offer fluids. Medical treatments might include IV fluids or cooling mechanisms.
Parents, coaches and others who work with children can help prevent heat-related illnesses by keeping children hydrated and using common sense and protection when they are in the sun. Adults should also familiarize themselves with the signs of heat-related problems and be ready to call for medical help if necessary.