“We usually don’t see heat related illness right away,” says Joseph Primrose, MD, Washington University emergency room physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “It’s when heat lasts for four or five days we see problems.”
For example, Dr. Primrose points to some among the elderly who turn off their air conditioner to save money or close windows as a safety precaution and succumb to the heat.
A heat-related illness can ultimately lead to heat stroke or even a heart attack and elderly people are at the highest risk.
“Many elderly people are on medications and some meds can have harmful effects on their bodies when combined with the heat,” says Dr. Primrose. “Anyone taking blood pressure or diabetes medications needs to be aware of the risks.”
Heat stroke is the result of the body’s inability to cope with heat. Initial signs of heat stroke are heat rash, cramps, nausea, and dizziness. If these symptoms go untreated they can develop into dehydration, which can be mild to severe. Symptoms that develop into vomiting or blacking out need to be treated by a physician immediately.
Dr. Primrose says there are three stages of a heat related illness. The first stage is called a heat cramp and can occur between two and four hours after heat exposure. Heat cramps could occur when too much heat builds up in the body or when the body gets dehydrated from sweating too much. The second stage occurs when the body is exposed to heat for four or five hours causing fatigue and possibly goose bumps. The final stage of prolonged heat exposure is called heat stroke and generally happens between seven to nine hours of heat exposure.
To minimize dangers to heat, Dr. Primrose advises setting the air conditioner at 75 degrees or lower. In the event of a power outage, move to the coolest area in the house, like the basement, or to a local cooling building. Also be sure to drink plenty of liquids and check on neighbors.