How to recognize and respond to signs of heat exhaustion, heat stroke

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sweaty, exhausted man

Over the weekend, I ventured out to Ohio International Raceway for its grand reopening where hundreds of motocross riders of all ages gathered to practice. While many in attendance had frequented the track in its heyday years ago, I had never been there before.

I expected it to be loud. I expected the air to be heavy with the smell of race fuel. I expected some crashes, some roost and plenty of dust. However, I wasn’t expecting the sweltering conditions.

I was sweating just sitting in the shade. It was 91 F and there wasn’t much of a breeze. It wasn’t too uncomfortable. I drank water and relaxed for the most part. But I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the observers sitting in direct sunlight or for the lady cooped up in the food truck or for anyone brave enough to use the port-o-potties. And I definitely couldn’t imagine what would make you want to suit up in full gear and ride a dirt bike in those conditions.

As one class of riders coasted off the track and the next lined up at the starting gate, I said, “I don’t know how no one is suffering from heat stroke out here. It’s so hot.”

My boyfriend responded, “Oh, it definitely happens. People have died from it at the track.”

Being responsible

With that hard truth, I thought to myself, motocross athletes must take really good care of themselves. There wasn’t a single incident of heat exhaustion over the course of the day. As they pulled off the track at the end of each practice session, they sought the shade of EZ UPs and the relief water offered. They shed any unnecessary layers and did what they could to stay cool during downtime. And when the heat and exhaustion got to be too much, they called it a day.

I don’t remember athletes taking such care in high school or even college. Just last year, a Kent State University football player passed away after collapsing during conditioning drills due to hyperthermia, which is when the body fails to adequately cool itself down under hot and humid conditions and overheats.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke should be taken seriously whether you are training or working in extremely hot and humid conditions, especially if you’re not used to the increased temperatures. Learning to recognize and respond to the warning signs can mean the difference between life and death. Developing good habits and taking care of yourself in the heat will not only keep you safe, it will make you more productive.

Recognizing heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion will set in first and can potentially lead to heat stroke if symptoms are ignored. It can begin suddenly or happen over time. Causes include playing, working or training in the heat. Heavy perspiration and dehydration can accelerate heat exhaustion.

Watch for these symptoms:

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Low blood pressure upon standing
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache

Responding to heat exhaustion

If you don’t take steps to treat heat exhaustion as soon as you recognize the symptoms, then it could lead to heat stroke, which is a life-threatening condition. If you suspect heat exhaustion, you need to take these steps immediately:

  1. Get out of the heat and into a shady or air-conditioned place.
  2. Lay down and elevate your legs slightly.
  3. Take off any tight or heavy clothing.
  4. Drink cool water or other nonalcoholic beverages without caffeine.
  5. Get cooled off by having someone fan you and spray or sponge cool water on you.
  6. Have someone monitor you closely and contact a doctor if symptoms get worse or don’t improve within an hour.

Call 911 immediately if you experience:

  • Fainting
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Inability to drink
  • Core body temperature of 104 F (heat stroke)

Recognizing heat stroke

If heat exhaustion is overlooked, your body may overheat, causing heat stroke if your body temperature rises to 104 F or higher. Heat stroke requires emergency treatment. If it is untreated or treatment is delayed, you could suffer serious damage to your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles or even death.

Watch for these symptoms:

  • Core body temperature of 104 F or higher.
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Slurred speech
  • Irritability
  • Delirium
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flushed or red skin
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Racing heart rate
  • Headache
  • Alteration in sweating. If heat stroke is brought on by hot weather, your skin will feel hot and dry to the touch. If it is brought on by strenuous exercise, your skin may feel dry or slightly moist.

Responding to heat stroke

If you or someone else is experiencing heat stroke, you need to seek medical help immediately.

While you’re waiting for emergency treatment, do the following:

  1. Get out of the heat and into a shade or air-conditioned place.
  2. Remove excess clothing.
  3. Cool down any way you can — in a cool tub of water; in a cool shower; with the garden hose; fanning and misting or sponging cool water; placing ice packs or wet towels on your head, neck, armpits and groin.

Developing good habits

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are preventable. All you have to do is take better care of yourself when it’s extremely hot outside. Use these tips to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke:

  • Get acclimated to the heat before staying out in it for long periods of time. It can take several weeks to adjust.
  • Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day, planning work and exercise for early mornings or evenings. And if you can’t, schedule physical activity around the weather, take plenty of breaks and stay hydrated.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to maintain a normal body temperature and stay hydrated.
  • Protect against sunburn by wearing a hat, sunglasses and by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 (and reapply every two hours or more often if you’re swimming or sweating).
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing.
  • Take extra precautions with certain medications that can affect your body’s ability to stay hydrated and dissipate heat.
  • Never leave anyone in a parked car.
  • Be extremely cautious if you’re at increased risk.

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