Health & Medicine

Extreme heat can be fatal. Here’s how to survive this heat wave

Quick tips for heat wave safety

The California Office of Emergency Services warns of heat wave dangers.
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The California Office of Emergency Services warns of heat wave dangers.

As scorching temperatures usher the Sacramento region into summer, local emergency room doctors expect to see plenty of patients walk in with the types of complaints that many don’t normally associate with dehydration or heat exposure.

Generally, people will directly link their sunburn or high body temperature to the heat, doctors said, but they are less likely to make that same connection to symptoms such as fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation or headaches. In the worst cases, people are either unconscious or too confused to fully grasp the gravity of their condition.

“Dehydration encompasses a lot of things,” said Dr. Noel Hastings, an emergency room physician who practices at Sutter Medical Center and other local hospitals. “People might come in with muscle cramps or other complaints that turn into dehydration. You get so dehydrated that certain organs aren’t functioning well. … Patients will become nauseous and vomit because the intestines aren’t getting enough fluid to keep them hydrated.”

On Sunday, temperatures surpassed the historic record of 105 degrees for the day, and the weather forecast shows hotter days to come over the week.

Hastings and other physicians stressed that no one is invulnerable to heat-related illnesses, including athletes, construction workers or even little boys who will one day grow up to be doctors.

“Some people – and I’m one of them – don’t have a strong thirst response,” Hastings said. “I don’t get very thirsty, and when I was younger, I used to get heat exhaustion quite often. I did a lot of outdoor activities. My friends, who got tired of helping me when I was feeling ill, came up with a system of me setting a timer on my watch, so that it would beep every two minutes, and they’d say, ‘Every two minutes, when you hear that beep, you’ve got to take a drink.’ 

People may not be able recognize their own symptoms and make the heat connection, said Dr. Hernando Garzon, an emergency physician who practices at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento and Roseville. So they shouldn’t dismiss the admonishments of coworkers, friends or relatives to sit down in a cool spot, drink water and have a snack.

“Sometimes, you get people who are unaware that their bodies are under stress, or they don’t have an opportunity to hydrate,” Garzon said. “They get a little sick at work, and their performance deteriorates, and a coworker says, ‘Hey, maybe you should hydrate.’ 

When most people think of dehydration, they think of water, the doctors said, so they drink lots of it, but water alone isn’t enough.

People also need electrolytes — the calcium, potassium and other essential minerals and vitamins that control fluid balance and keep energy flowing through the body. Athletes and construction workers often are laid low by electrolyte imbalances because they didn’t make time to eat. Keeping trail mix, a banana, raisins, avocado slices or an energy gel pack handy can help, the doctors suggested.

Also, be aware that heat can aggravate other conditions. People taking medications for hypertension, for example, may suddenly find themselves suffering symptoms of low blood pressure. Dehydration means there’s less fluid, and consequently less pressure, in their blood vessels, so they get light-headed and dizzy. When the air is dry, there will be more pollen and dust in the air, and that can induce wheezing and asthma symptoms in people who have never experienced such an episode before.

Pay attention to the heat index, because that’s the temperature your body feels. During heat waves, people typically recognize their vulnerability. However, they may pay less attention on days when temperatures are in the low- to mid-90s, even though the heat index could reach dangerous territory. Many people will stay out in the sun longer on those days than they would on a triple-digit day, and they also indulge in more alcohol.

“Coronas all day long don’t really count as hydration,” Hastings said. “In fact, your body has to use up water to process that alcohol. I would say that, for every mixed drink or beer, you should probably have an equal amount of water. Or, for every two, at least.”

Want to know whether you’re getting enough water? Check the color of your urine when you go to the bathroom. It should be pale yellow, not yellowish orange.

The Sacramento Fire Department shares tips on staying safe and healthy as the mercury skyrockets.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

Here’s how to stay safe from the heat

Kids comes first: Few things are more devastating for parents than to hear that their son or daughter, inadvertently left in a hot car for only minutes, cannot be revived. To remind yourself that your child is in the car, put your cell phone, purse, briefcase or another must-have item in the back seat near your child. Or strap a favorite toy into the passenger seat beside you.

Keep cool: Try to make your home as cool as possible, but if you can’t, go to a mall, library or government-designated cooling center. Here are a few cooling centers in the region: Hart Senior Center, 915 27th St. in Sacramento; Veterans Memorial Center, 203 14th St. in Davis; the Downtown Library, 225 Taylor St. in Roseville. Find others here: http://sacb.ee/a7na for Placer County, http://sacb.ee/a6Rs for the city and county of Sacramento, and http://sacb.ee/a7nc for Yolo County.

Be prepared: Keep a container of water nearby, perhaps freezing it the night before. Ensure children are drinking enough water. A lack of it could show up as constipation rather than vomiting. To check whether you’re getting enough water, look at the color of your urine when you go to the bathroom. It should be pale yellow, not yellowish orange.

Just as important as water, have a snack handy: Eat a banana, trail mix, raisins or avocado slices. These and other items have the vitamins and minerals that help bodies to control fluid balance and provide the energy needed to perform daily tasks.

Have to work outside? Do so in the early mornings and late evenings if possible. If you can’t, be sure to take breaks from the heat. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Remember sun block with SPF of 30 or greater.

Pay attention to the heat index: The heat index is often described as the feels-like temperature because it expresses the level of discomfort your body will feel. It takes both temperature and humidity into account. Exercise extreme caution at index levels of 91-103 degrees. Prolonged outdoor exposure at levels of 103-124 is considered dangerous. Above that level, lengthy exposure is considered extremely dangerous.

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