Heat-Related Illnesses

Happy July! We’re right in the middle of summer -- a time to relax, spend time with family, and enjoy the sunshine. Although Florida is a dream summer destination, it also has scorching temperatures. According to Weather Atlas, July is the hottest month of the year in Florida, with average temperatures in the 90s.

While we hope you’re enjoying these sunny days, Capital Health Plan would also like to remind you to take the proper precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones from heat-related illnesses.

Heat-related illness occurs when we can no longer transfer enough heat from our bodies to keep us cool. Symptoms can develop quickly in sweltering conditions, especially in small spaces with poor ventilation, like attics or inside parked cars with no air conditioning.

Photo of Dr. Christine Chiu-Geers

It’s important to recognize that heat-related illnesses can take on many forms:

  • Heat rash (prickly heat) occurs when the sweat ducts to the skin become blocked or swell, causing a red or pink rash usually found on body areas covered by clothing. This condition is uncomfortable and causes itching. While it is most common in babies, it may affect adults in hot, humid climates like Florida.

  • Heat cramps occur in muscles after exercise because sweating causes the body to lose water, salt, and minerals (electrolytes). To avoid heat cramps, make sure to replenish your electrolytes by drinking liquids infused with electrolytes like Gatorade or Pedialyte.

  • Heat edema (swelling in the hands and feet) occurs when you sit or stand for a long time in a hot environment. Seniors have an increased risk of developing heat edema, especially if they have any condition that affects their blood circulation.

  • Heat tetany (hyperventilation and heat stress) occurs when someone has short periods of stress (i.e., manual labor, exercising, etc.) in a hot environment. Symptoms of heat tetany may include respiratory problems, numbness or tingling, and muscle spasms. 

  • Heat syncope (fainting) occurs when someone suddenly loses consciousness because of low blood pressure. The heat causes the blood vessels to expand, and body fluids move into the legs because of gravity. Symptoms include feeling lightheaded and pale, cool, and moist skin.

  • Heat exhaustion occurs when you can’t produce enough sweat to cool your body down. This generally develops when a person is working or exercising in hot weather and does not drink enough liquids to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, headache, dizziness, nausea, and pale, cool, and moist skin. Moderate to severe heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke.

  • Heatstroke occurs when the body fails to regulate its temperature and usually sets in when body temperature reaches 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Heatstroke is a medical emergency and can be life-threatening or cause serious long-term problems. Symptoms include unconsciousness, seizures, difficulty breathing, confusion, fast heart rate, dry, red, hot skin, and severe vomiting. Heatstroke is a severe condition that requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect you or someone you know to be suffering from heatstroke, call 911 right away.

These may sound scary, but they can be avoided by understanding your risk factors, listening to your body, and following a few simple tips.

Things that increase the risk of heat-related illness:

  • Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of dehydration.

  • Certain medicines, like some antidepressants, antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, sedative medicine, and thyroid medicine. In general, medications that decrease the amount of blood pumped by the heart and those that alter your sense of thirst.

  • Age - Those really young and really old do not sweat effectively.

  • Obesity - People with an unhealthy BMI have more body mass to cool, which takes longer than someone with a healthy BMI.

  • Chronic diseases like diabetes, heart failure, or cancer

If you know you’re going to be in a hot environment with direct sunlight, you should plan accordingly. Be careful not to overdress, avoid drinking alcohol while you’re in the sun, and make sure you consistently drink water. Two quarts of cool fluids, preferably water, every 2-4 hours is recommended.

If you’re out in the sun and begin to feel like you’re developing a heat-related illness, immediately take steps to cool yourself down. Stop whatever it is you’re doing and rest, get out of direct sunlight and into a cooler area, elevate your feet, remove unnecessary layers of clothing, and of course, drink water or rehydration beverages.

With these tips at your disposal, you can feel comfortable grabbing your hat, sunglasses, and water and enjoying these summer months. Be mindful of your body and the dangers of excessive heat – and, as always, discuss your concerns with your primary care physician.

Dr. Chiu-Geers is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at the Capital Health Plan Governor’s Square Health Center. She loves taking care of her patients and enjoys being active with her three young sons in her spare time.