August 3, 2011

In light of the oppressive heat wave now blanketing most of the continental United States, with temperatures in many areas in the upper 90s or over 100 degrees, we thought it would be timely to address statistics regarding heat-related visits to the emergency departments of hospitals. Many people who are seen in hospital emergency departments for heat-related issues such as heat exhaustion, overheating, and dehydration were engaged in sports activities or recreational activities at the time of, or shortly before, having symptoms.

Heat-related illness occurs when people cannot regulate their body heat and their bodies are unable to compensate and properly cool themselves. The body normally cools itself by sweating. When sweating is unable to keep pace with the body’s heat, body temperature rises rapidly. High humidity causes sweat to evaporate less quickly and therefore the cooling effect of sweating is less effective on high humidity days. Very high body temperature can lead to brain damage, damage to other vital organs, and ultimately death.

Between 2001 and 2009, there were an estimated 5,946 people treated in hospital emergency departments in the United States for heat-related illnesses suffered during sports or recreational activities (about two emergency department visits per 100,000 population). The highest rates were for males (72.5%) and those between 15 and19 (35.6%). About 7% of the patients were admitted into the hospital for further observation or treatment (8.9% for males; 2.4% for females; 18.8% for those ages 55 and over; and, 4.6% for those under 55). The rate of heat-related illness was highest from July through September (66.4%) — 12.9% during June, 19.8% during July, 33.2% during August, and 13.5% during September.

Which sports and recreational activities are responsible for the most heat-related visits to emergency departments? Football (24.7%) and simple exercises such as jogging and walking (20.4%). For males, football was responsible for the most emergency department visits for those 19 and under. Golf was responsible for the most visits for those 45 and older. For females, baseball and softball resulted in the most emergency department visits for heat-related illnesses for those 14 and younger, track and field for those between 15 and 19, and exercise for those 20 and older.

Symptoms And Prevention Of Heat Illness

Certain people are more susceptible to heat illness than others, including infants and children who must rely on supervisors (adults) to monitor their activities and fluid intake, people aged 65 and older who may be less likely to sense and respond to high heat, overweight people who tend to retain body heat, people who become dehydrated due to work or exercise in high heat environments, people with diseases such as heart disease or high blood pressure, and people who take certain medications. 

Symptoms of heat illnesses include dehydration, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, or a change in mental status. Untreated heat illness can be potentially fatal (on average, about 300 people die in the U.S. each year from heat-related illness). Medical attention should be sought at the first signs of heat illness.

Heat illness is preventable. Taking frequent breaks and maintaining regular and adequate fluid consumption, especially on hot and humid days, are recommended. Gradually increasing frequency, duration, and intensity of physical activities during hot months can help acclimate people to the heat. Physical activities should be scheduled for early in the day before the heat builds or during early evening when the sun is not directly overhead. Clothing choices should include light-weight and light-colored clothing that is loose-fitting. Having an exercise partner who can monitor your health and fluid consumption is helpful to identify situations that may otherwise progress to heat illness.

Source: CDC

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke occurs when the body cannot regulate its own temperature, sweating ceases, and the body is unable to cool itself. The body’s temperature will quickly rise to 106 degrees or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent injuries if not treated quickly and appropriately by emergency medical personnel. 

If someone shows signs of heat stroke, remove him to a shady or cooler area and cool him as rapidly as possible. Maintain cooling efforts and keep monitoring body temperature until the temperature drops to 101 to 102 degrees. Contact emergency medical help at once. Do NOT give fluids to drink. 

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness. Symptoms may include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. The skin may be cool and moist, pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow. Treatment includes cooling methods such as cool, nonalcoholic fluids, rest, cool shower or sponge bath, and placing the victim in an air-conditioned room. Untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.

Source: CDC

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