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Welcome, medical contents search May 10, 2013
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Deadly Heat

Summer's high temperatures put you at risk for potentially life-threatening heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat related illness has taken a heavier than average toll on Europe this year, and with temperatures rising across the globe heat exhaustion and heat stroke are poised to more common and more deadly. Since July, Western Europe has been in the grip of its hottest summer on record. France was particularly hard hit. The government estimates 10,000 people died of heat-related illness in three months. Independent estimates place the toll higher. In the U.S., heat stroke has killed over 8,000 in the last twenty years. Unnecessarily deadly, heat related illnesses strike those who aren't aware of the precautions they need to take

Heat exhaustion is the more common and less dangerous of the two conditions, though its causes and symptoms prefigure those of heat stroke. Both conditions occur when weather conditions cause a person's internal temperature to rise beyond its normal range, and the body's system for naturally cooling itself begins to malfunction. When the human body heats up, it tries to keep itself cool by radiating the heat that's been building up and evaporating sweat. Both of these processes require that blood flow towards the surface of the skin. But, the system isn't perfect; the water that body uses to create sweat and cool itself down is drawn from the blood (blood is mostly water). So when the sweating becomes profuse enough, the body begins to sense that it's losing blood. In response to this misperceived threat, the body redirects the flow of blood to the skin back towards the vital, internal organs. Once the blood is gone from the skin, the body loses its ability to cool itself by sweating - and without the cooling mechanism, it begins to rapidly heat up. When the temperature rises high enough, it can damage major organs and send the body into as state of mild shock.

Once in this state of heat induced shock, symptoms can include dizziness and lightheadedness. Those suffering from heat exhaustion will often have difficulty thinking straight and may become irritable. They may also have stomach cramps and muscle aches, begin to vomit, develop headaches and pass out.

Usually these symptoms will occur while the victim, though overheated, still has a temperature between 100.5 and 104.9 degrees. When he / she does, the exhaustion can be treated by taking steps to bring their body temperature back down. These steps include consuming a glass of cool water every ten to fifteen minutes, applying icepacks to the surface of the skin and moving them to a cooler location.

After suffering from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, the part of the brain that controls how the body cools itself can malfunction, heat stroke results and sufferers lose their ability to cool themselves down through sweating and other means, and their temperature will continue to rise, damaging vital internal organs. The symptoms of this damage, in many cases, are similar to those of heat exhaustion. In addition, however, heat stroke can cause hallucinations, bizarre behavior and seizures. These, in turn, can lead to coma or death.

By the time a heat stroke has occurred, the best course of action is to get the victim to a hospital as soon as possible. Taking steps to lower body temperature, such as those used to combat heat exhaustion can be useful - as can performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if the victim has stopped breathing after passing out.

Some groups are more vulnerable than others. As always, the elderly are especially prone to heat exhaustion and stroke, as older bodies are less able to manage heat. The ability for the body's natural cooling mechanisms to work is key, and sweating is essential. Some medications can inhibit healthy sweating: diuretics, laxatives, calcium channel blockers and drugs that have anticholinergic (sweat inhibiting) effects - as well as some illicit drugs like ecstasy, amphetamines and cocaine - can all make the body's natural cooling more difficult. As can high-humidity; the evaporation of the sweat from the skin's surface is what cools the body, and the more moisture already in the air, the less that can be pulled up from skin. Thus, areas that combine high-humidity with high temperatures - like much of the South, East and Midwest does during summer - are particularly dangerous.

Most people keep themselves busy in the summer months by instinctively taking the most effective step in heat illness prevention; keeping a comfortable body temperature. Staying well hydrated (with water, not alcoholic or caffinated beverages - both stimulants can actually dehydrate the body) and keeping close to air-conditioning are the most effective methods. Wearing loose fitting, light-colored cotton clothing and avoiding strenuous exercise during the hottest hours of the day are also effective measures.

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