Children, Elderly Most at Risk for Heat-Related Illness

Children, Elderly Most at Risk for Heat-Related Illness

Heat-related illness can be prevented.

July 18, 2002

Summer camp is meant to be a week or two of outdoor fun, but when the temperatures outside reach the high 90s or above, it is up to the counselors to make sure their young children don't overdue it.

"We make sure that if it's a code red, orange or purple day, that we play passive games," said Catherine Wildman, Herndon Parks and Recreation camp coordinator. "The children wear hats and sunscreen and have plenty of water."

People suffer from heat-related illness when the body's temperature control system is overloaded. Body temperature rises rapidly when normal sweating can't cool the body enough in extreme heat. Conditions such as age, obesity, fever, sunburn, dehydration, heart disease, and drug and alcohol use can also effect the body's ability to cool itself. In addition, high humidity prevents sweat from evaporating and the body from releasing heat quickly enough.

"Keeping cool in the heat is a matter of common sense," said Dr. Robert B. Stroube, state health commissioner. "If you're active outside working or playing, you have to help your body handle the heat by using your head."

"WHEN THE HEAT gets up there, we do get more calls," said Renee Stilwell, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department public relations officer. "Young kids need to be monitored. You need to get acclimated to the heat slowly."

The symptoms of and responses to heat-related illnesses vary depending on the condition.

Sunburn can be a reddening of the skin, as well as swelling, blisters, fever and headaches. The best remedy is to take a shower using soap to remove oils that block pores which prevents the body from cooling itself. If there is blistering, apply sterile dressing and get medical attention.

Heat cramps consists of painful spasms usually in the leg and abdominal muscles and heavy sweating. Firm pressure should be applied on the cramping muscles or gentle message to relieve the spasm. The victim should take sips of water, but stop if nausea occurs.

Heavy sweating, weakness, weak pulse, fainting, vomiting or cold, clammy skin can be a sign of heat exhaustion. The person needs to lie down in a cool place. Their clothing should be loosened and wet, cool clothes should be applied. The victim should take sips of water and be moved to an air-conditioned place. If the person is vomiting, seek immediate medical attention.

The signs of heat or sun stroke include a body temperature of 106 degrees or higher, rapid pulse, unconsciousness, lack of sweat and hot, dry skin. Heat stroke is a severe medical condition and 911 should be called immediately. Move the victim to a cooler place or try a cool bath or sponging to reduce the body temperature. Do not give the person fluids.

The people most at risk of heat-related illnesses are babies and children up to age 4, people 65 years old and older, people who are overweight, already sick or on certain medications and those who overexert themselves by work or exercise.

WILDMAN said when the temperatures reach high levels, the camp focus turns to games that don't require a lot of running and instead allow the children to sit in the cool grass under the shade of trees. The campers also spend less time outside and there is plenty of water on hand to keep the youngsters hydrated.

"As counselors, we have to be aware of the children's needs," Wildman said.

There are simple ways to avoid heat-related illness and still enjoy the summer.

The state health department recommends drinking two to four glasses of fluids every hour to replace the salt and minerals lost from sweating. Drinks such as water, fruit juice or sports drinks are best. The sugar and caffeine in soft drinks, however, can lead to dehydration as can alcohol.

People can stay cool by staying in an air-conditioned place or by taking a cool bath or shower. When temperatures reach the high 90s or above, fans may not be enough to prevent heat-related illness.

People should plan their outdoor activities when the temperature is cooler such as before noon or in the evenings. Wearing sunscreen, light clothing and a hat can all help prevent heat-related illness.

It is also important to remember the symptoms of heat-related illness can be immediate or awhile after the exposure.

"Many times when people suffer from heat-related illness, it doesn't appear right away," Stilwell said. "Let's say, if you are in the heat on Friday, you might feel the affects on Saturday. It doesn't have to occur right away."