Bring on the Heat, Just Not All At Once

By Fina Scroppo

Access to long sunny days and tropical warmth is a big draw for the Canadian traveller. The key is to know when to say when!

When Scott Chilton went to Costa Rica a couple of months ago, he was looking forward to the tropical climate of the jungle paradise. But two days into his trip, his holiday almost came to an end. He was feeling feverish, drowsy, queasy and his skin was cool to the touch. His body was dehydrated not only from being in scorching temperatures, but also from drinking soft drinks and alcohol and lounging in a hot tub. Scott had heat exhaustion. He spent nearly three days in bed recuperating and wasn’t fully himself for almost a week.

“The risks to the traveller [in tropical areas] are not just bugs and bites, but also changes in their environment. They may need to alter their behaviours (aka, use their common sense) when faced with drastic changes in temperature, altitude and air quality,” says Dr. Mark Wise, director of The Travel Clinic in Toronto, who had a patient he suspects died of heat stroke while racing in extreme heat. Indeed, exposure to natural heat, compounded by humidity and direct sunlight with little to no wind, puts considerable strain on your body and can cause heat-related illness.

The terms heat exhaustion and heatstroke are often interchanged.

While both of them require some kind of attention, they differ and signal varying degrees of required care. Someone who is experiencing heat exhaustion is showing the first signs of trouble; so he’d likely have had muscle cramps followed by sweating, an elevated temperature, weakness, drowsiness, headache, nausea, shallow breathing and pale, cool or moist skin.

Heatstroke is much more severe and considered a medical emergency.

The body’s temperature rises dramatically, to about 41 C; the skin is red, hot and dry; breathing becomes heavy; a headache, dizziness, or confusion sets in; and the person may behave irrationally before fainting. A third condition, adds Wise, is prickly heat or heat rash. While not quite life-threatening, it can be a nuisance causing itching, irritation and small blisters or red bumps, mainly on the trunk and the thighs.

What’s happening in more serious cases, says Wise, is that the body is overheating because its regulatory mechanism is failing. “Imagine you’re driving down a highway and your car’s cooling mechanism breaks down,” he explains. “Smoke starts coming out from under the hood and four-letter words start coming out of your mouth. Our body is no different. The brain, kidney and liver functions are not working properly and that leads to metabolic and neurological abnormalities like confusion and coma.”

Adds Wise: We have two main mechanisms to keep our inner “thermostat” from rising in extreme heat. First, our blood is redirected to the skin and our blood vessels dilate to help radiate some of the excess heat into the environment. “Then we sweat, hopefully, a lot. As the sweat evaporates, it cools us down. But when humidity is high, the sweat may not evaporate as quickly or at all. In very dry or windy conditions, it may evaporate so quickly that you don’t even notice yourself dripping.”

How your body copes with heat can vary between individuals and situations. Among the risk factors for heat-related illness: age (younger children don’t regulate temperature as well as adults), certain medications, overexposure to the sun, heavy exertion or intense activity without proper hydration, not drinking enough or consuming fluids that promote dehydration, such as soft drinks, caffeine or alcohol, a cardiovascular condition or infection.

Protect yourself from the heat and minimize the risks by following these guidelines:

  • Outdoors, keep out of the sun if possible and stay in the shade; wear a wide-brimmed, well-ventilated hat.
  • Drink lots of fluids (water, drinks with electrolytes, such as Gatorade or Powerade); avoid sugary liquids and alcohol.
  • Limit physical activity or reduce its intensity; avoid activities during midday; take frequent breaks.
  • Wear light-weight, loose-fitting and light-coloured clothing.
  • Take cool baths or showers to keep the body’s temperature down.
  • If taking medication, consult your doctor on possible side effects during extreme heat.

“The lesson,” says Wise, “is to use common sense. Save your exertion for the morning, wear a hat, keep in the shade. Heatstroke doesn’t come on all of a sudden—there are signs. He even suggests carrying a thermometer since “everyone feels hot at the equator.” When in doubt, “do what the locals do,” he adds. They’re typically sitting in shade, staying low key and drinking lots of water.

Treatment

If you're feeling dizzy, thirsty, weak or anxious, move to a cool spot immediately, remove excess clothing and replace fluids. Drink small amounts of fluid frequently, rather than gulping down large amounts, which may result in vomiting, says Dr. Mark Wise. Keep track of urine output to assess the state of hydration. (Clear urine is better than dark, concentrated urine.)

If you suspect someone is suffering from heatstroke, seek medical care. Initial treatment should include moving the person to the shade or an air-conditioned space, removing unnecessary clothing, sponging with cool wet towels, applying ice packs or fanning. Apply cold compresses to the neck, groin and armpits. Only if conscious, give the person something cool to drink (avoid alcohol, sugary drinks and caffeine).

NOTE: This information is a GUIDELINE ONLY. Always get individual advice from a medical practitioner.

 


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