Why early summer’s heat could be extra-dangerous
Extreme heat can be dangerous for everyone — but children, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions are even more susceptible to dehydration and other heat-related illness, warn New Jersey experts.
Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and an assistant professor at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, said most individuals can adjust to sudden changes in temperature, a process called acclimatization, within five to seven days. But for some, the process can take up to two weeks.
That makes the start of serious heat, like we've seen this week, particularly dangerous for those most vulnerable to it.
"When the weather changes quickly, such as with a sudden heat wave, our bodies race to help maintain a normal body temperature by adjusting blood flow and sweating," Caudle said. "The bodies of infants and the elderly aren't able to make those changes as easily as healthy adults, leaving them at higher risk for serious illness and even death."
Hot weather causes about 658 deaths in the United States each year, according to a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study results indicated that most of the deaths occurred in the home and the vast majority of times those homes had no air conditioning.
Dr. Bradley Pulver, medical director of emergency services at Ocean Medical Center in Brick Township, said children and the elderly are less likely to understand what's happening during prolonged exposure to the extreme heat.
"People get into trouble on the beach, but also some elderly at home in their apartments don't have air conditioning and are at significant risk in those conditions," Pulver said.
Caudle also added ,any older individuals have medical conditions or live in situations that make them more likely to succumb to the heat.
"Aside from their bodies' inability to adjust quickly to changing temperatures, older individuals are less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature and can have a diminished thirst reflex that keeps them from drinking adequate amounts of liquid," Caudle said. "They may also have safety and financial concerns that keep them behind closed windows without fans or air conditioners."
Heat-related illness starts out with becoming dehydrated, according to Pulver.
"If you have prolonged exposure you will become dehydrated and then start to have symptoms which may include weakness and headache, and nausea and vomiting, and muscle cramps," Pulver said.
It's critical to get fluids and get out of the sun, or "you can develop heat exhaustion and then even heat stroke with body temperatures of over 105 — and that's very dangerous and potentially life-threatening," he said.
Both experts recommend staying hydrated. Avoid drinking caffeine, alcohol and overly sugary drinks, which can worsen dehydration. Avoid outdoor activities during 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the sun is the hottest. Wearing sunscreen and dressing in loose, lightweight clothing.
Young children and the elderly should stay in air conditioning and should be checked on regularly.
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