With the wonderful warmth of sunny summer days also come heat-related health conditions such as dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat rash especially for young children and elderly who are most at risk.
Dehydration risk increases in summer months due to higher temperatures along with more frequent outdoor exercise resulting in heavier sweating. Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include thirst, dry mouth, headache, fatigue, dizziness on standing and decreased/dark urination. With severe dehydration the feeling of thirst can actual disappear and signs consist of very dry skin, fast heartbeat and breathing, drowsiness, confusion and fainting. Complications include kidney stones, organ damage and electrolyte imbalances leading to muscle cramps, heart palpitations and seizures as well as shock and death. In infants and young children additional signs to watch for are no tears if crying, no wet diaper for several hours, sunken eyes and limpness.
Prevention by maintaining adequate hydration is important. Water need varies based on age, gender, weight, health status, activity level and outside temperature so there is no set recommendation for water intake. That being said an average moderately active male often needs 8-12 8 oz. glasses per day and a woman often needs 8-10. Amounts vary widely for children because of their vast discrepancy in size, but general per day guidelines are roughly 2-4 glasses for 1-3 year olds, 4-7 glasses for 4-8 year olds, 6-8 glasses for 9-13 year olds and 8-10 glasses for 14-18 year olds. It is important to mention that drinking too much water is a real thing known as water intoxication and can be dangerous.
With mild to moderate dehydration, oral rehydration with pure water or with electrolytes is often enough. Alternatives to the classic sports drink are electrolyte tabs or filtered water/coconut water with a pinch of sea salt, baking soda and sugar. Severe dehydration is an emergency situation requiring careful administration of IV fluids.
Heat exhaustion occurs when high temperatures along with the inability of the body to cool itself off lead to overheating (a.k.a. a rise in core body temperature). Young children and seniors have a reduced ability to temperature regulate making them more susceptible. Additional factors increasing the risk of heat exhaustion include high humidity, dehydration, alcohol use, obesity, overdressing, sunburn and extreme temperature shifts. A minor subset condition is heat cramps, basically just muscle cramps from heat and heavy sweating. Those with heat exhaustion experience sweating, cool clammy skin, fatigue, headache, nausea, muscle spasms and dizziness on standing. Move to a cool place, rest and sip water. If symptoms progress or do not resolve seek medical help.
The severe form of heat exhaustion called heat stroke is a medical emergency. At this point the skin may be dry or damp, but is hot to the touch and body temperature will be elevated; additional signs are fast pulse, vomiting, confusion and fainting. If heat stroke is suspected call 911.
Heat rash, a.k.a. prickly heat, is a rash of red bumps or blisters that develops on the skin when pores clog with trapped sweat. It usually appears on the chest, neck, head and creases such as the armpits, groin and elbow folds. The rash may be itchy or sting. Although it is most common in babies and young children it can happen in adults. Heat rash will usually go away on its own in a few days. Of course there are many other similar rashes, so if you have never seen this type of rash before it is a good idea to have a doctor confirm. If it does not resolve or if there is an associated fever, swelling or pus drainage definitely get it checked.
So get out and enjoy the warm summer weather, but remember to take precautions to prevent heat-related illnesses. Keep hydrated and limit alcohol and caffeine intake. Wear loose light clothes so the skin can breathe. Protect against sunburn. Plan vigorous activity for early or late in the day to avoid the worst heat of the afternoon. Make the most of shade, fans and air conditioners. Cool off with a wet washcloth or a dip in the water. As always, if you or someone with you has concerning symptoms seek the advice of a medical professional.
Dr. Jennalyn McBride is a Naturopathic Doctor at Northwest Center for Optimal Health in Marysville, WA. Contact her at 360-651-9355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.