Most of us enjoy hot weather, but excessive heat is hazardous to our health.

Dehydration and heatstroke are two common heat-related diseases that, if untreated, can be fatal during a heat wave. Here’s how to ensure you’re prepared.

For a long time, we had hoped for warm summer days. When temperatures soar, however, the heat and humidity can be too much for the body.

Heatstroke and dehydration are major concerns during the hot summer months. If ignored or untreated, they can lead to life-threatening medical conditions.

Allow the summer heat to overcome you. Know the signs and symptoms of heatstroke and dehydration and how to prevent the dangerous consequences.

What is dehydration?

Dehydration can be a serious heat-related disease. It is also a dangerous side effect of diarrhoea, vomiting and fever. Children and people aged over 60 are particularly susceptible to dehydration.

What causes dehydration?

Under normal conditions, we lose body water through sweat, tears, breathing, urine, and stools. In a healthy person, this water is replaced by drinking fluids and eating foods that contain water. When a person suffers severe fever, diarrhoea or vomiting, dehydration can occur. It can also happen if an individual is overexposed to the sun and does not drink enough water. Basically, dehydration happens when the body loses water and essential body salts, such as sodium and potassium.

Occasionally, dehydration is caused by certain medicines, such as diuretics. These deplete our body fluids and electrolytes. Whatever the cause, dehydration must be treated as soon as possible.

What are the symptoms of dehydration?

Here are the most common symptoms of dehydration. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms could include:

• thirst

• less-frequent urination

• dry skin

• fatigue

• light-headedness

• dizziness

• confusion

• dry mouth and mucous membranes

• increased heart rate and breathing

In children, additional symptoms could include:

• dry mouth and tongue

• no tears when crying

• no wet nappies for several hours

• sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks

• listlessness

• irritability

• skin that does not flatten when pinched and released

The symptoms of dehydration may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always ask your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Treatment for dehydration

If caught early, dehydration can often be treated at home under a healthcare provider’s guidance. In children, directions for giving food and fluids will differ according to the cause of the dehydration, so it is important to talk to your child’s healthcare provider.

In cases of mild dehydration, simple rehydration is recommended by drinking fluids. Many sports drinks on the market effectively restore body fluids, electrolytes, and salt balance.

For moderate dehydration, intravenous (IV) fluids may be needed. If caught early enough, simple rehydration might be effective. Cases of serious dehydration should be treated as a medical emergency because hospitalisation, along with intravenous fluids, is necessary. Immediate action should be taken.

How can dehydration be prevented?

Take precautions to avoid the harmful effects of dehydration, including:

• drinking plenty of fluids, especially when working or playing in the sun;

• ensuring you take in more fluid than you lose;

• trying to keep physical outdoor activities for the cooler parts of the day;

• drinking appropriate sports drinks to help maintain electrolyte balance.

For infants and young children, solutions such as Pedialyte will help maintain the electrolyte balance during illness or heat exposure. Do not try to make fluid and salt solutions at home for children.

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is the most severe form of heat illness and is a life-threatening emergency. It is the result of long, extreme exposure to the sun. In this case, a person does not sweat enough to lower their body temperature.

The elderly, infants, persons who work outdoors, people with mental illness, the obese, those with poor circulation, and those taking certain medicines or drinking alcohol are most susceptible to heatstroke. It is a condition that develops rapidly and needs immediate medical treatment.

What causes heatstroke?

Our bodies make a tremendous amount of internal heat and we normally cool ourselves by sweating and radiating heat through the skin. However, in certain circumstances, such as extreme heat, high humidity, or vigorous activity in the hot sun, this cooling system may begin to fail. This allows heat to build up to dangerous levels.

If a person becomes dehydrated and cannot sweat enough to cool their body, their internal temperature may rise to dangerously high levels. This causes heatstroke.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke?

Here are the most common symptoms of heat stroke. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

• headache;

• dizziness;

• disorientation, agitation, or confusion;

• sluggishness or fatigue;

• seizures;

• hot, dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty;

• a high body temperature;

• loss of consciousness;

• rapid heartbeat;

• hallucinations.

The symptoms of heatstroke may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always ask your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Treatment for heatstroke

The person needs to be treated immediately because heatstroke can cause permanent damage or death. There are some immediate first-aid measures you can take while waiting for help to arrive, including:

• getting the person to a shaded area;

• removing clothing and gently apply cool water to the skin followed by fanning to stimulate sweating;

• Apply ice packs to the groin and armpits.

Have the person lie down in a cool area with their feet slightly elevated.

Cool the person rapidly however you can.

Intravenous (IV) fluids are often necessary to compensate for fluid or electrolyte loss. Bed rest is generally advised and body temperature may fluctuate abnormally for weeks after heatstroke.

How can heatstroke be prevented?

Some precautions can help to protect you against the adverse effects of heat stroke.

These include:

• drinking plenty of fluids during outdoor activities, especially on hot days. Water and sports drinks are the drinks of choice. Avoid caffeinated tea, coffee, soda, and alcohol, as these can lead to dehydration;

• wearing lightweight, tightly woven, loose-fitting clothing in light colours;

• Schedule vigorous activity and sports for cooler times of the day.

• Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a hat and sunglasses and using an umbrella.

• gradually increasing time spent outdoors to get your body used to the heat.

• Take drink breaks often and misting yourself with a spray bottle to avoid overheating during outdoor activities;

• spending as much time indoors as possible on very hot and humid days; and

• not leaving children or pets in closed cars on warm or sunny days.

If you live in a hot climate and have a chronic condition, talk to your healthcare provider about extra precautions you can take to protect yourself against heatstroke.

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