Beating the Heat

GW physicians give tips on how to stay safe this summer.

July 29, 2010

By Jennifer Eder

With recent temperatures rising to more than 100 degrees paired with almost unbearable humidity, it’s hard to believe that just six months ago, there was a blizzard in D.C.

Such blistering temperatures put people at risk for heat-related illnesses, says Chris Lang, associate professor of emergency medicine at GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“The environment in D.C. is one of the worst environments for heat-related illnesses because it’s warm and humid,” says Dr. Lang.

There is a wide spectrum of heat-related illnesses, with heat stroke being the most severe. Milder cases, often called heat exhaustion, can cause excessive sweating, extreme fatigue, headaches, nausea and light-headedness.

Neal Sikka, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, says he sees a lot of tourists in the summer coming into the emergency room at the George Washington University Medical Center with these symptoms.

“They’re walking around all day touring the monuments and museums and not staying hydrated or taking time to cool off,” says Dr. Sikka.

Heat exhaustion can be treated fairly easily, but when it escalates into heat stroke, “it’s a complete emergency,” says Dr. Lang.

Heat stroke, which can be fatal, is severe because the body gets so hot, the brain is affected. Symptoms include confusion, seizures and behavioral changes, says Robert Shesser, director of the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine and chairman of GW's Department of Emergency Medicine.

“Body temperatures can get as high as 107 degrees in people who have heat stroke,” says Dr. Shesser, a professor of emergency medicine and international health.

To prevent heat-related illnesses this summer, Dr. Lang suggests limiting your time outside, wearing loose, light-colored clothing, using large-brim hats or umbrellas to create shade and staying hydrated.

“A typical adult needs to drink between two and three liters of water a day,” he says.

If you start to feel dizzy or weak, go inside an air-conditioned building or pat your face with a cool rag, says Dr. Sikka. He also suggests understanding any medications you may be taking as certain prescriptions affect the ability to sweat.

And Dr. Shesser suggests modifying outdoor physical activity.

“If you’re a runner, run at the beginning of the day or the end of the day,” he says. “Mostly it’s just common sense.”

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