During a recent conversation with a patient, we marveled at the beautiful weather we enjoy here in Arizona. No hurricanes, very few tornados, minimal flooding threats, and infrequent winds. It’s all good in the Southwest lower deserts with our generally temperate sunny and clear days — until June, when the extreme heat sets in to remind all of us that heat is the number one weather-related killer not only here in Arizona but throughout the United States.
As Arizonans we must take care to avoid overexposure to the sun. Exposure to heat can cause illness and death. Heat exhaustion is a result of your body overheating. Symptoms include thirst, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness and fatigue. Other symptoms include a rapid pulse, muscle cramps, nausea and headache. If you have heat exhaustion you may also become confused and irritable and experience vomiting.
If you believe that you are experiencing heat exhaustion, stop all activity and rest. Get out of the heat, preferably inside to an air-conditioned environment, or move to a cool place in the shade. Drink water and remove all excessive outer clothing. If possible, take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath. Apply other cooling measures such as ice towels or fans. If a victim of heat exhaustion doesn’t improve within an hour, get medical help.
Heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat syncope (fainting) can progress to the more serious condition known as heat stroke. The medical definition of heat stroke is a core body temperature greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat stroke can damage the brain and other vital organs, and can lead to death. Symptoms of heat stroke are similar to the symptoms of heat exhaustion.
In addition, heat stroke victims may have skin very hot to the touch. They may also become disoriented and confused. If you have heat stroke you may lose consciousness or fall into a coma. As one doctor noted, “Heat exhaustion can put you in the hospital. Heat stroke can put you in the ground.”
Other contributing factors to heat illnesses besides hot weather and strenuous activity include dehydration, alcohol use and overdressing. Risk factors for heat exhaustion and heat stroke are strongly related to the heat index and the level of humidity. Infants and children up to age 4 and adults over 65 are particularly at risk because they adjust to heat more slowly than others. People with certain sensitive health conditions or medications may be more at risk and should check with their doctor to ensure they can cope with extreme heat and humidity.
Finally, a note about hydration. Our bodies consist of about 60 percent water. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that adult men drink about 15 cups (125 ounces) of fluid a day and women 11 cups (91 ounces). Don’t wait until you are thirsty, and drink frequently throughout the day. Use a dedicated water bottle with a straw. Add a slice of lemon or cucumber to help increase your fluid intake.
We enjoyed a nice winter here in Maricopa. We’re wrapping up a beautiful spring of moderate temperatures and to date, only a handful of days that reached 100 degrees or higher. Last year in 2018 we had experienced 24 days of 100 degrees or more by this time. Now that’s a favorable start to the summer.
The heat is here, so slather on the sunscreen, drink plenty of fluids, dress for sun protection and enjoy the season. Keep an eye not only on the temperature outside, but most importantly keep a closer eye on your “inside” temperature.
Brittany Johnson is a physician assistant at Agave Family Physicians in Maricopa.