Heat-Related Illnesses: Signs, Symptoms, and Solutions


By Lindsay Nixon, Guest Contributor

With the dog days of summer arriving, locals are taking advantage of warm temperatures and soaking up the sun. Although a day in the sun can lead to a heat-related illness, learning to prevent and treat it will keep you and your family safe this summer. The two most common sun exposure problems we see in Michigan are sunburn and heat exhaustion. While some may feel these issues are isolated to the southern states, Carlos Santana’s recent mid-performance collapse at Pine Knob shows heat-related illness is something we should all consider – even in the mitten state.

Heat exhaustion is a result of dehydration. Severe dehydration prevents your body from producing sweat, which it needs to cool itself down through the process of evaporation. Signs of heat exhaustion are muscle cramping, dizziness, cool skin with goosebumps, a weak and rapid pulse, nausea, and headache. Heat exhaustion is more common on days with high humidity.

Physical activity during summer athletic practices combined with the extra weight of equipment make young athletes one of the most at-risk groups. Football players are 11 times more likely to develop heat-related illnesses than all other sports combined. As high school athletes return to the fields this summer, it is important that players, parents, and coaches know the signs of heat exhaustion to prevent a life-threatening emergency.

In adults, dehydration can result from the combination of sun exposure and alcohol. Physical activity outdoors during peak sun hours and certain drugs (blood pressure medications, antihistamines, or stimulants) may increase the risk of developing a heat-related illness.

If you suspect a person has heat exhaustion, move them to a cool place and give them cold fluids to drink. They should change into loose-fitting clothing and take a cool shower or bath to lower their body temperature. If symptoms have not improved after one hour, seek medical attention.

Heat stroke is a severe form of heat exhaustion that occurs when the body’s temperature rises above 104 degrees. Signs of heat stroke include confusion, hallucinations, hot skin that is not sweaty, and seizure. If you think someone may be experiencing heat stroke, move the person to a shaded area and have them lie down with their feet slightly elevated before emergency medical assistance arrives. Cool the person down by placing ice packs around the neck, armpits, and between the legs. Apply cold water to the skin and fan the drops; the evaporation will help the body release heat.

Sunburn, the most common summer complaint, is caused by excessive ultraviolet (UV) light exposure causing short- and long-term damage to your skin. Repeated exposure causes skin to age and could lead to cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

The skin’s best line of defense against the sun is clothing with UV-blocking properties. Some will block both UVA and UVB light from your skin and have an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating. UPF is measured by the percentage of the sun’s rays that will penetrate the fabric. For example, a UPF 50 fabric will allow 1/50th of the UV light through the material. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, a dark, long-sleeved denim shirt provides a UPF of 1,700, while a wet white t-shirt only offers a UPF of 3.

Sunscreen is the most common form of sun protection in the United States, but not all lotions are created equal. Find a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Apply every 15 minutes before going into the sun and reapply every 2 hours. If you swim or sweat, you should reapply more frequently. The entire body should be covered, including the feet, neck, and ears. Your lips can also burn, so find a lip balm with SPF protection and apply it regularly.

If you get a sunburn, cool your skin off by getting in the water or a cool shower for a short period of time, and then seek shade. While your skin is damp, apply a moisturizing lotion to help your skin begin to heal. Swelling and discomfort can be treated with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or naproxen.

Protect yourself by knowing your risk factors, drinking plenty of water or electrolyte-enhanced beverages such as Gatorade, applying sunscreen, and taking breaks from the heat this summer. Remember to always see a doctor if you have severe blisters, fever, chills, or if you feel nauseated or lightheaded.

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