For most people, extreme heat is uncomfortable. But for some, it can downright dangerous. “Problems arise when the body generates and absorbs more heat than it can dissipate,” says Dr. Josh Kosowsky, clinical director of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and co-author of “When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests.” Dr. Kosowsky walked us through the different ailments that can present in these particularly warm temps.
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Heat rash, aka prickly heat
Symptoms: red or pink rash, itchy rash
“This occurs when sweat ducts get blocked,” says Dr. Kosowsky. “Avoid wearing tight clothes and don’t sit still for a long time. Keep airflow around the body. It’s not serious and usually resolves after a cool shower.”
Symptoms: painful muscles and/or spasms, nausea, vomiting, weakness, fatigue
“Typically, people who exercise in the heat can get this. The muscles are overheated and need to cool down. Stop exercising and drink water or a drink with electrolytes. Try exercising in a cooler part of the day, like early morning or evening.”
Symptoms: dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
This is a type of fainting that happens in the heat. “If you stand-up quickly and become light-headed or even faint, it’s a sure sign of dehydration," he says. "Also, the body’s response to the heat is to dilate the blood vessels and expose as little area to heat as possible. That can lower blood pressure. Rest and take things more slowly in the heat.”
Symptoms: heavy sweating; cool, moist, pale or flushed skin; headache; dizziness; weakness; mild confusion; drowsiness; nausea
“Heat exhaustion is already dangerous — it’s the last warning sign to get out of the heat and cool down. If you don’t feel better after hydrating and resting in a cool place, seek medical help.”
Symptoms: flushed, hot, dry skin; absence of sweating; confusion; lightheadedness; profound lethargy; weakness; vomiting; weak, rapid pulse; decreased alertness; shallow, rapid breathing
“This is very serious, though quite rare," Dr. Kosowsky. "By this point, the body’s ability to compensate for overwhelming heat is compromised. It can lead to major organ failure [in the] kidney, brain and heart. It requires immediate emergency treatment.”
Rule No. 1 for beating the heat: Hydrate!
“Drink plenty of water,” says Dr. Kosowsky, “but don’t wait until you’re thirsty. By that time, you’re already dehydrated. In a heat wave, you can’t afford to fall behind on fluids.”