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Heat Injuries 101

Summer often means more freedom, adventure and time outdoors. And while being outdoors can be great for the mind and spirit, it also can create health issues if you’re not careful. 

With nice, beautiful weather often comes intense heat and humidity that, with too much exposure, can be dangerous. Oftentimes, this weather can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and even more fatal: heat stroke. To help you stay safer this summer we’ll help you learn what these three heat injuries are, signs of heat injuries coming on and preventative measures to help you avoid injury.

What are heat cramps:
Heat cramps are uncontrollable, painful muscle spasms that can happen during heavy exercise when exposed to a hot environment. These spasms are often intense and last longer than typical muscle cramps caused in exercise. Most commonly, calves, arms, back, and the abdominal wall are the muscles affected by heat cramps, however it could happen to any muscle group. Experiencing heat cramps can often indicate that dehydration and electrolyte loss is setting in and occasionally these cramps will accompany heat exhaustion.

How to treat heat cramps:
Heat cramps are treatable and it is important to take care of these cramps before they can transition into more serious heat injuries such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

  1. Rest - to relieve the pain, briefly rest and relax your muscles, in a cool, shaded environment. It’s important to avoid strenuous activities for several hours to help with recovery.
  2. Regain electrolytes - not only is it important to remain hydrated, it is vital to replenish your electrolytes and stay on top of possible electrolyte imbalances. Try drinking clear juice or an electrolyte sports drink.
  3. Stretch - to not cause further pain, slowly stretch your affected muscles and be gentle to avoid straining. It can also be beneficial to gently massage these areas.
  4. If symptoms persist for more than an hour, call your doctor to receive further treatment

What is heat exhaustion:
Heat exhaustion is the second stage of heat injury, and the most common heat injury, however it is preventable and can be treated. Heat exhaustion is most often caused by the loss of water and electrolytes during physical activity outdoors with an exposure to high temperatures, especially with high humidity. 

Signs of heat exhaustion:
Knowing what heat exhaustion may look like can help you be prepared for your next time outdoors in the heat. Noticing these common signs will help you take the immediate actions necessary to treat and prevent further progression of injury.

  1. Heavy sweating - your body is fighting to cool itself down, and during heat exhaustion your body will rapidly sweat to help fight. This is also accompanied by moist, goose bumped skin.
  2. Faintness, dizziness and fatigue - a big indicator of heat exhaustion is your body often feeling weak. You may feel as if you’re about to pass out and like you are unable to move much farther.
  3. Weak, but rapid pulse - if you begin to feel your pulse move quickly, this is a major rise for concern and may likely be accompanied by the feeling of dizziness and overall weakness.
  4. Nausea and headache - like feeling weak, your body may often feel sick. It’s critical to get into a cool shaded environment and cool down your body when you feel these symptoms come on.

What is heat stroke:
Heat stroke is what happens when your body temperature rises to 104 F or higher, and is no longer able to cool itself down. Heat stroke typically occurs in those who are doing extended physical activity (labor or physical activities such as hiking, climbing, backpacking etc.) during hot, humid days. However, it can also occur by sudden increases in temperature such as an early summer heat wave or when traveling to a much hotter climate than what you’ve been used to. Once someone has experienced heat stroke or another heat related injury, you will become more susceptible to heat related injuries.


Signs of heat stroke:
Being aware of what typical signs of heat stroke look like can allow you to take immediate action before the complete onset of heat stroke. Some of the most common signs are:

  1. Elevated temperature - a defining characteristic of heat stroke is if your body temperature becomes 104 F or higher. At this temp the body’s organs are at risk of sustaining damage.
  2. Dizziness, mental confusion or weakness - these symptoms often precede heat stroke and should serve as huge red flags that heat stroke may set in soon. 
  3. Lack of sweat - if you’re experiencing little to no sweating during the intense heat this is a rise for concern. It typically means your body is dehydrated and thus unable to remove heat. At this stage, rapid temperature increase is fast approaching and could be fatal. 
  4. Unconsciousness -  fainting spells, even if they are short and you’re able to recover fairly quickly, are often associated with heat stroke and a sign that something is wrong.

Preventative tips:
By being knowledgeable and proactive in extreme heat you can avoid heat injuries. Follow these tips to help you prepare:

  1. Drink lots of fluids - especially water and replenishing electrolytes!
  2. Plan activities accordingly - we know the best part of summer is being able to enjoy the great outdoors, but when possible, try to plan activities around what the weather is going to be like. Enjoying the outdoors when it’s cooler and less humid can help keep you safe. 
  3. Take breaks - finding shaded areas when outdoors will help your body to cool off while you catch your breath.
  4. Dress appropriately - wear a hat to shield your face and lightweight, light-colored clothing to stay cooler. 
  5. Wear sunscreen - sunburns will affect your body’s ability to cool itself down, so it’s important to protect your exposed skin with sunscreen. Remember to apply generously and reapply every two hours, or more if you’ll be swimming or sweating a lot.

Before you go out on your next rock climbing or hiking adventure, remember the preventative tips and signs of heat injuries. And note: heat injuries are no joke. It is a medical emergency that, when treated in early stages, can prevent serious complications. Always be on the lookout for the signs above and if anything should show up, treat the injury, and if there are signs of a heat stroke, call 911 immediately.  Remember, heat injuries can be prevented so be safe, have fun, and enjoy the great outdoors!