Summer Heat: The Danger Zone

Posted: October 23rd, 2012 under Health.
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The death of Minnesota Vikings All-Pro tackle Korey Stringer has focused attention on the danger of heat stroke, a life-threatening condition that can develop very rapidly.
Penn State professor W. Larry Kenney, a researcher into heat tolerance, said it’s not just professional athletes, marathon runners and other “heroic exercisers” who are at risk in a heat wave. Babies and older people are, too.

Kenney said small babies are particularly in danger, and can develop heat stroke in a very short time because their sweating mechanism is underdeveloped. Elderly people generally have lower heat tolerance than younger ones. And no matter what your age, some medications may make you susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are two different things.

Heat exhaustion is caused by heavy sweating from exposure to heat for many hours. Salts (electrolytes) are depleted along with the fluid lost, causing fatigue, low blood pressure and sometimes disorientation and fainting. It “seems serious but seldom is,” according to the Merck Manual of Medical Information. Rehydration, replacement of the lost salts and moving to a cool environment usually produce a quick recovery.

Heat stroke is the result of long exposure to extreme heat, when you cannot sweat enough to lower your body temperature. The body’s normal temperature regulating systems fail, and shut down. Sweating often stops entirely. Heat stroke is often, but not always, preceded by headache, dizziness, nausea or chills. The heart rate may reach 160 to 180 heartbeats a minute, and the body temperature may reach 104 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The victim may lose consciousness or suffer convulsions.

A heat stroke victim should be rushed to a hospital. If you’re waiting for emergency assistance, you may want to help cool the person’s body by wrapping him or her in wet bedclothes or immersing the person in cool water. Be careful: too rapid cooling can be dangerous.

Stringer, Kenney said, was unable to sweat normally because he was wearing full protective gear and had very little exposed skin. He also apparently ignored one of the warning signs of an imminent heat stroke, nausea.

Kenney said the greatest danger of heat stroke is during the first few days of extremely hot weather, before you’ve become acclimated to the heat. Many college and high school football coaches, aware of that, now schedule a week of gradual conditioning before they have their players practice in full uniforms. The pros don’t do that, he said.

Some drugs can increase your susceptibility to heat stroke, Kenney said, including diuretics, blood pressure medications, sedatives, tranquilizers and tri-cyclic antidepressants. So can illegal drugs that are popular at raves, moshes and rock concerts — particularly cocaine and Ecstasy.

Wearing light loose clothing, drinking plenty of fluids and staying out of the sun if possible are well-known ways to avoid heat-related illnesses. In addition to those, Kenney said, his research has found that people who are in good physical condition are at less risk.

And above all, he said, “Listen to your body.” Korey Stringer didn’t. He never understood how serious his condition had become. He left the practice field three times to vomit, and then he returned.

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