Heat-related injuries – heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke – can happen to anyone. As a full-time paramedic, I have personally treated a number of heat-related injuries, and they can be nasty. These injuries can occur anytime the body is subjected to more heat than it can offload through conduction, convection, and radiation. Over time, the body temperature becomes too great to continue functioning, and heat-related illnesses become a huge concern.
Introduction to Heat-Related Illnesses
Heat-related illnesses present themselves differently depending on what they are. For example, heat cramps present flushed, moist skin, and painful leg cramps. This is the body’s natural way of telling you to stop and cool down. Heat exhaustion may present with pale, moist skin, and the same cramps, but will also be accompanied by fatigue, weakness, GI distress, and often, a fever.
The Severest Form of Heat-Related Illness: Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness. It shares many of the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, but it is important to keep in mind that a victim does not slowly progress from one to the other – full-on heat stroke may be the first sign you get that something is wrong. Signs and symptoms include nausea, vomiting, confusion, agitation, lethargy, and hot, dry skin. In advanced stages seizures, coma, and even death are real possibilities. Overheating is not a matter to be taken lightly.
Recognition and timely treatment of heat-related injuries is very important. Arguably more important is prevention – you win 100% of the fights you aren’t in. Let’s delve a bit more deeply into these injuries and how they impact the human body.
Understanding the Impact of Heat and How to Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses
The human body is designed to operate within a fairly narrow temperature band. If it gets too hot or too cold – just a few degrees – bad things begin to happen. The body has some compensatory mechanisms to maintain body temperature, but these only go so far. The main way the body cools itself in hot environments is through sweating. Sweat seeps through pores all over the surface of the body. Ambient heat evaporates the sweat, taking heat with it. This process is called evaporation or evaporative cooling.
Overheating Due to Overexertion
Sometimes this mechanism is not enough to cool the body quickly enough to avoid injury. Lots of factors can contribute to overheating. Exertion contributes as this stokes the body’s natural furnace. In the same way that physical exertion keeps you warm in the winter, it can overheat you in extreme heat, driving the body’s core temperature too high. Another factor is age; the body’s ability to cool itself diminishes with extremes of age. Older adults should be especially careful, and younger children should be monitored closely when working or recreating in warm weather.
The Impact of the Environment on Heat Exhaustion
The environment plays a huge role. In high temperatures, it is much easier to overheat. Outdoor work in direct sunlight can also increase body temperature rapidly. In high humidity environments, sweat does not evaporate as readily and evaporative cooling becomes less effective at reducing body temperature. In very arid environments, it can evaporate too quickly, not taking enough heat with it. This is why heat-related injuries soar during heat waves.
Practical Strategies and Equipment to Stay Cool in the Heat
There are some tools and techniques you can use to keep you healthy in the heat. Many of these make the most of using the body’s natural cooling mechanisms. Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is choose the time and place you work. Exerting yourself in the early morning or cooler weather lowers the risk of overheating the body. Unfortunately, you don’t always get to choose your time and place, so we have compiled some other techniques that can help.
What You Can Wear to Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses
One method is to work in the shade, or if not in the shade, then at least in the shade of a wide-brimmed hat. This keeps more skin out of direct sunlight, reducing the amount of heat absorbed through radiation. This one, small step can significantly reduce the speed at which the body overheats. Wearing light-colored clothing that reflects the sun’s rays can also help avoid radiant heat. Loose-fitting clothing helps air flow through, aiding in evaporative cooling (convection). Wearing cotton clothing can also help for the same reasons cotton clothing is NOT recommended in cold weather. Cotton is hydrophilic meaning it holds onto water, keeping it close to the skin. Water is an excellent conductor of heat, and helps you offload it quickly.
Make a Point to Take Frequent Breaks
In hot weather, you should take frequent breaks. Regular breaks allow the body to stop producing more heat and to cool down, prolonging your work day. If at all possible, take breaks in the shade. Taking that a step further, regular breaks in air conditioning can actively cool the body some and are even more effective. None of these techniques, however, are as important as hydration. Hydration is critical to maintaining your body temperature and there is no substitute.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Water is the body’s primary method of cooling, via sweat. Heavy sweating can deplete the body’s water reserve in a hurry, and it is critical to replenish it. Sports drinks do provide some needed electrolytes (sodium and potassium, important to the proper function of the heart…but that’s another topic), but usually in excessive quantities, along with tons of sugar. You should mostly drink water. Along with a decent diet, you will still get plenty of the electrolytes you need, and NOTHING hydrates you as well as good, old-fashioned, unflavored H2O.
The Importance of a Hydration Bladder When Working in the Heat
Keeping water convenient can improve hydration compliance (i.e., getting people to drink!). The water bottle is great, but when working you have to put it somewhere, and you have to take the time to pull it out and open it. A hydration bladder is an excellent solution to this problem, the drinking hose being always accessible. Hydration bladders have been around for a long time. Older, soft hydration bladders have a lot of problems, however. They can easily break, something many of you have probably experienced. A burst bladder not only spills your water but potentially soaks a lot of other important equipment.
ICEPLATE® Curve: The Ultimate Solution to Heat-Related Illness
ICEPLATE® Curve is a water bladder like no other. Used by military, law enforcement, and elite athletes, ICEPLATE® Curve is a rigid water bladder that conforms to the contours of the body. Unlike soft bladders, ICEPLATE® Curve is supremely durable. Rather than merely holding water, it also utilizes the water’s thermal mass. Water holds its temperature much better than air does; this is why a snowbank can stay frozen for days or even weeks after freezing temperatures have passed. Common water bladders do not take advantage of this at all.
ICEPLATE® Curve can be frozen overnight to harness the cooling power of water. When worn against the body it helps to cool the body and provides ice-cold water to drink as it melts. The rigid body of ICEPLATE® Curve also ensures you get every last drop of water out, and ICEPLATE® can be worn front and rear for double the water and double the cooling. ICEPLATE® Curve is a revolution in hydration technology.
ICEPLATE® Curve integrates into the Qore Performance IceAge Ecosystem, fitting into a variety of carriers and holders, including plate carriers and high-vis safety vests. These (and many other items) integrate with ICEVENTS®, padding that allows airflow to keep the wearer cool. All of this adds up to a more effective human, capable of doing more work, trekking more miles, and accomplishing more tasks, safely, with fewer breaks.
Importance of Education and Preparation for Weather Emergencies
Heat stress is cumulative on the body. One minute someone can seem to be managing reasonably well, and the next they can be suffering from heat stroke. This poses some serious occupational safety concerns, but there are ways to deal with this. The National Weather Service offers heat watches and warnings. Do your best to plan periods of strenuous activities outside of these times, and during cooler weather. Working in cool weather will go a long way to prevent heat illness. Encourage those exposed to hot weather to wear light-colored clothing and loose-fitting clothing.
Carefully Monitor At-Risk Employees
Carefully monitor those with medical conditions, as well as older adults and young children for signs of heat stress. Provide frequent breaks and push hydration with plenty of cold water. Make hydration convenient and offer external thermoregulation with ICEPLATE® Curve water bladders.
Know the signs and symptoms of heat-related injuries. If someone begins exhibiting even mild signs and symptoms of heat illness, cool them down with hydration, and suggest they go home to take a cool bath or cool shower (though not so cold as to cause shivering, which is counter-productive).
Qore Performance: Building a Superhuman Future
Qore Performance has truly changed the game when it comes to advanced human thermoregulation technology. Maximum value is extracted from water and the container it is carried in. If you live or work in extreme heat, let Qore Performance help you on the way to a Superhuman Future.