Henry Mayo ER Doctor Offers Tips To Beat Heat Exhaustion, Heat Stroke
Learn About Heat Sickness, How to Prevent it, and How to Get Cool if You Get Overheated
As the Santa Clarita Valley’s first major heat wave of the summer continues into the 4th of July weekend, Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Emergency Room Physician Dr. Darrin D. Privett offered some timely info and tips on how residents can avoid heat sickness, especially heat exhaustion and potentially deadly heat stroke.
"We had 24 heat exposure-related complaints last weekend," said Dr. Privett (pictured), a six-year veteran of Henry Mayo’s ER.
“The symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke can actually be very similar,” he said. "Typically, with heat exposure and heat exhaustion, you can have some neurological symptoms where you start becoming light-headed, weak, dizzy. You can have some muscle cramping, headaches, blurry vision, disorientation, sweating, nausea. Those are typical early signs of heat exhaustion, heat exposure.”
Heat stroke is more severe, and can be fatal. In addition to showing symptoms of heat exhaustion, there’s high body temperature (103 degrees or more), the skin is hot and red (whether dry or moist), the pulse is rapid and strong, and there’s possible unconsciousness.
“You have serious impairment of your mental status, lethargic responses, unresponsiveness,” Dr. Privett said. “It basically causes multi-organ dysfunction. People end up fainting and collapsing in heat, which further exasperates their exposure, and then they can get cardiovascular collapse. Cardiac arrhythmia is ultimately what you die from.”
Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke are Usually Avoidable
Fortunately, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are usually avoidable, and emergency treatment is available for people who were unprepared and suffered heat sickness of some form or another.
“Whenever you're out in the heat or you're exposed like that and feel those symptoms, you first obviously want to remove yourself from that environment,” Dr. Privett said. “Get into an area where you can try to initiate some kind of cooling measures, being in the shade, and start to cool yourself by staying hydrated, replenishing the fluids your body has lost.”
If the symptoms are more severe, ice packs will help. “Typically that's what happens here, if you come into the emergency room,” Dr. Privett said. “We put an IV in you, we hydrate you, we give you fluids, and sometimes we have to put ice packs in your groin, in your armpits, to try to decrease your overall temperature.”
While no hard figures are available, Dr. Privett guesstimates he and the Henry Mayo ER staff see between 40-50 heat-related illnesses in an average summer.
“We see quite a bit of heat exposure and heat exhaustion, being out here in the Santa Clarita Valley,” he said. “It's very common, especially when the heat indexes rise. It gets really hot out here and (people in) this community seems to be out and about doing things.
Dr. Privett said heat stroke is rare, though, in the SCV. “We've had a couple of pronounced cases, some hikers who were up fairly high and didn't have adequate resources to cool themselves. And I know we had one mortality approximately two years ago from heat stroke, mainly because he was high up hiking and the (emergency) response times were longer because of that.”
Prevention is Best Medicine for Heat-Related Illnesses
Prevention is the best medicine for heat-related illnesses, Dr. Privett emphasized. Start by staying informed about the weather and knowing when extreme heat is coming, he said. When it’s upon us, stay inside air-conditioned rooms and buildings as much as possible. Avoid direct sunlight.
If you have to be outdoors, the most important things to do are stay out of the direct sunlight and drink plenty of fluids.
Athletes and people who exercise in extreme heat are more likely to bring on heat sickness. They should limit outdoor activity like workouts and practices to cooler hours of the day or evening. They should also pace their activity, starting slowly and gradually picking up the tempo.
People who have to work outdoors during heat waves must also take measures to fend off heat sickness. Try to schedule the most strenuous tasks for cooler parts of the day. Wear lighter clothing, if possible, and use and re-apply sunscreen as often as necessary.
Active and working people should avoid alcohol or beverages containing lots of sugar, and drink from two to four cups of water each hour while exercising or on the job.
However, water alone won’t prevent heat sickness.
"When you're sweating like that and the body tries to cool itself, it loses its important electrolytes, specifically salt, and electrolytes,” Dr. Privett said. “If you lose those electrolytes and just drink water, you're going to have more difficulty in hydrating yourself. So, you want to balance that by drinking water and then some kind of electrolyte fluid, like Gatorade. There are so many things on the market these days, so you want to alternate that back and forth.”
Wise choices in clothing will help keep you cool, too. Loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing is most often recommended.
“Whatever activity you're doing, you want to be dressed appropriately," he said. "You don't want to be layered up. Try to make sure you have sunscreen on. You always want to make sure you have somewhere you can go to get into the shade, and avoid direct exposure to the sun.
"Make sure you plan according to your activity and you have the proper amount of fluids with you," Dr. Privett said. "If it's going to require you to be out in the sun for long periods of time, you just want to make sure you're prepared."
Seniors, Kids and Pets Most Vulnerable
Seniors and children who depend on others for their care are the most vulnerable during an extreme heat wave.
Relatives, neighbors, friends and caregivers should check in on elderly and/or homebound people with chronic medical conditions to make sure they're staying cool and hydrated.
"You never want to leave children who have difficulty cooling themselves off in the first place in places with no ventilation, where their maximum exposure to the heat is increased," Dr. Privett said.
Henry Mayo's ER does not see cases of overheated kids left in cars very often, "which is good," he said.
And while the hospital is for humans, he urges people to be mindful of extreme heat's potentially deadly effects on pets, too.
Staying Safe in the Heat Takes Good Common Sense
"Protecting yourself from heat exposure just really requires good common sense,” Dr. Privett said. “With the desert climate where we live, it's always hot in the summer. So, just make sure you adequately prepare yourself for whatever particular activity you're doing.”
If you or someone you know needs to get out of the heat and into the cool, all three Santa Clarita public libraries (Valencia, Newhall and Canyon Country) and the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall are designated cooling centers. If you are planning to visit a cooling center, call beforehand to make sure seating is still available.
For more information about the cooling centers, call 2-1-1 or click here.
Staying safe also means staying smart. Dr. Privett noted the 24 locals treated at the Henry Mayo ER for heat-related issues last weekend "did not include another four burn patients who were burned by antifreeze from overheated cars, which is a lot more than expected," he said, suggesting we warn drivers not to open their radiator caps when their cars overheat.
Consider it done.
Find out more about Henry Mayo by calling 661-253-8000 or visiting www.henrymayo.com.
Photo: Courtesy Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.
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