Published on August 01, 2016

What to do when your body can’t cool itself

What to do when your body can’t cool itself

Hot, sunny weather may make for the perfect beach day, but it also poses potential hazards, such as dehydration, dizziness and difficulty breathing.

And the effects can be deadly. According the federal Centers for Disease Control, 7,415 people in the United States died from extreme hot weather from 1999 to 2010.

“The hotter it is, the more humid it is, the higher the risk of overheating, ranging from being dehydrated all the way up to hyperthermia,” said Evan Weinstein, MD, Falmouth Hospital’s medical co-director of emergency medical services.

High humidity adds to the hazards of hot weather by keeping sweat from evaporating as quickly, limiting the body’s attempt to cool itself, according to the CDC.

The CDC identifies those most at risk as children younger than 2, adults over 65 and those with chronic diseases. It recommends the following:

  • Drink more water than usual on hot days
  • Limiting strenuous outdoor activity, particularly during the hottest part of the day.

Parents and caretakers need to keep an eye on children to ensure they stay hydrated, said Dr. Weinstein.

“Kids are more likely to exert themselves past the point of safety, if you will,” he said.

People on drugs to lower blood pressure are also vulnerable, he added.  Diuretics, for instance, do their job by slightly dehydrating the patient. Other drugs, like beta blockers and some calcium channel blockers, affect blood pressure.

“I don’t think people know about it unless they ask,” said Dr. Weinstein.

Symptoms of becoming overheated include nausea, dizziness and fatigue, though patients may not recognize them as such, he said. Muscle cramps can be an early sign of trouble.

Extreme overheating causes the brain to cease regulating the body’s temperature, a situation that requires immediate treatment, he warned. Falmouth Hospital ER physicians and nurses are well trained in this area, having gained and developed experience and techniques around hyperthermia due to the decades they have staffed the medical tent at the New Balance Falmouth Road Race.

They have learned that it’s crucial to treat overheated runners at the scene and not wait until they can be transported to the emergency room. To meet this challenge, the hospital has acquired large bathtubs that can be filled with a mixture of water and ice into which overheated runners are plunged, said Dr. Weinstein. This same equipment and expertise recently was offered to officials at Joint Base Cape Cod, where a brush fire burned more than 100 acres over several days while area temperatures rose into the 90s.

“In this multi-day brush fire on the base, Falmouth Hospital was willing and able to give them tubs and towels … for firefighters working in the heat with equipment,” he said.

Hot, sunny weather creates another threat: ground-level ozone. Ozone forms when sunlight interacts with pollutants in automobile exhaust, gasoline and solvent vapors, and some industrial and power-plant emissions, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Levels tend to be highest during the afternoons of sunny hot days.

Ozone irritates throat and lungs, and can cause coughing and pain when taking a deep breath, and wheezing and difficulty breathing during physical activity outside, according to the CDC. People with lung diseases such as asthma and emphysema need to be especially careful, but ozone can also harm healthy people.

The EPA warns that ozone poses a greater risk to older adults, and to children and teenagers, whose lungs are still developing and who breathe more for their weight than adults.

“On high-ozone days, stay inside, do what you can to avoid that ozone,” Dr. Weinstein said. “Try not to cause more emissions from your car, don’t mow your lawn or fill up gas tanks.”