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Dr. Odle: Know the symptoms of heat-related illness and what you can do to save a life

photo of Arizona doctor discussing heat-related illness
Dr. Leo Odle at Optum — Arizona
By Dr. Leo Odle | Point of View

Arizona’s blistering 115-degree temperatures are upon us with little relief in sight, and it is imperative that we address the potential health risks associated with extreme heat. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health reports 425 heat-associated deaths in 2022, a 25% increase from 2021.

Despite the alarming statistics, heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable. Certain groups are at greatest risk for heat-related illness including infants and young children, adults 65+, those taking certain medications, people with certain medical conditions and people who are obese.

It is important to know that elevated body temperature from heat-related illness is different from fever caused by infection or illness.

Some of the most common heat-related illnesses and their warning signs are as follows:

Heat stroke is a potentially life-threatening emergency and is the most serious heat-related illness. This occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature and the sweating mechanism fails. This type of illness can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Body temperature can rise to 106 degrees or higher within 10 to 15 minutes.

Symptoms of heat stroke can include high body temperature, typically 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher; losing consciousness or passing out; dizziness; nausea, confusion or headache; hot, red, dry or damp skin or profuse sweating. If you observe someone exhibiting signs of heat stroke, call 911 immediately. Move them to a cooler place and help lower their body temperature quickly with cool water if possible.

Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to an excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. It is most likely to occur in elderly people, people with high blood pressure and those who work or exercise in a hot environment. Symptoms can include heavy sweating, cold and clammy skin; nausea or vomiting; fast or weak pulse; dizziness and headache; tiredness or weakness; and muscle cramps.

If you observe someone who may be suffering from heat exhaustion, get medical help right away if symptoms are severe, worsening or not improving. Pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions should touch base with their health care provider. It is also important to note that heat exhaustion could be a continuum to heat stroke, since both illnesses share similar symptoms.

Know the symptoms of heat-related illness and what you can do to save a life

Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms (typically in the abdomen, arms or legs) that may occur with strenuous activity. People who sweat a lot during activity are more prone to heat cramps as sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture which can cause painful cramps.

Symptoms include heavy sweating during intense exercise and muscle pains or spasms. If you or someone you observe is suffering from heat cramps, stop physical activity and move to a cool place, wait for cramps to dissipate before doing any activity, and drink water or a sports drink. If symptoms are severe or persist or if you have a heart condition or other medical conditions, medical evaluation may be needed.

Heat rash is skin irritation caused by excessive sweating. Look for red clusters of small blisters that look like pimples on the skin, typically on neck, chest, groin or in elbow creases. If you think you or someone you observe is suffering from heat rash, stay in a cool, dry place, and keep the rash dry. Use of powder may help soothe discomfort.

Editor’s note: Dr. Leo Odle is an internal medicine specialist at Optum – Arizona.

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