Heat stress is a medical disorder. When we are too hot our bodies produce sweat to cool us down. When your body can no longer sweat or cool itself down in the face of prolonged heat exposure, that is heat stress.
Heat stress is just 1 of several heat stress disorders. The others being (from least serious to life threatening): heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat stress falls just before heat exhaustion on this continuum.
Heat Stress Symptoms
This is the problem.
Other than just being hot and uncomfortable, you may not have any.
This is what makes heat stress so dangerous. By the time people realize they have a problem, they have moved right through heat stress into the more dangerous heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Do not expose yourself to prolonged periods of heat above 85 degrees F. Especially when the humidity is also high (above 40%).
This is easy to do except during a heat wave, a summer power outage or if you work in the heat for a living.
In these instances, preventing heat stress may not be possible. Heat stress management and reduction should be our goals.
Heat Stress Recognition & Awareness
There is no reason for anyone to be harmed--much less killed--by heat stress disorders. Nevertheless, each summer heat wave is followed by scores of deaths.
These deaths are preventable through heat stress education.
My own family suffered a loss to heat stroke just a few years ago. My husband's wheelchair-bound grandmother died during a heat wave which blanketed the east coast of the U.S.
My mother-in-law who was taking care of Big Mom, simply did not understand how serious and deadly heat stress can be.
She is not alone.
Most people do not realize that extreme heat is just as life threatening as extreme cold. I think this is because most Americans live in places where cold temps are the more serious problem.
We (Tiny and I) are from the Northeast but we have been living in Florida for the past 25 years. We've been through hurricanes and power outages that lasted for several days.
What the rest of the country calls a heat wave, is just summer in Central Florida.
We have learned some important heat stress management guidelines which I am recording here in the hopes of preventing other families from losing a loved-one to heat stroke.
Heat Stress Assessment
It is important to remember that heat stress is just what its name implies.
Prolonged exposure to high ambient temperatures stresses your body just like an illness or any other trauma. This stress is layered on top of whatever other medical conditions you may already suffer from.
Your body can only handle a certain amount of stress before it breaks down. You must give it time to recover.
Heat stress is cumulative.
After exposure to high temperatures, it is important to cool yourself down and relieve that stress. How long this takes depends on how long you were exposed to the heat, your general health and how far along the heat stress disorder continuum you were before you began cooling down.
Fighting heat stress begins prior to exposure.
If you work in the heat, plan to take frequent breaks. Preferably in an air conditioned room or vehicle. Carry a cooler filled with ice and non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
Put off strenuous outdoor work during a heat wave. Under high heat conditions, you should exert yourself as little as possible.
Many people end up in the E.R. because they insisted on mowing their lawn in 110 degree heat.
The lawn will still be there next week.
If you fall victim to heat stroke, you may not.
If you must exert yourself, drink water before and during the active period and limit yourself to short periods of time in the heat.
Stop your activity in the middle, if you need to. Go back indoors to cool off and rehydrate before continuing.
Heat Stress Relief
During a heat wave, you need access to air conditioning on a daily basis.
This is not a want, it is a heat stress management need.
If you work in an air conditioned office, you can probably safely sleep in an unairconditioned room. I say probably because effective heat stress management requires that people who have heart or respiratory conditions and pregnant women sleep in an air conditioned room in any case.
If you work under hot conditions, you need to sleep under air conditioning in order to give your body enough cooling hours to recover from the heat you exposed it to earlier in the day.
What If I Don't Have an Air Conditioner?
Go out and buy one.
During the hurricanes of 2004, the power here went out for 6 days. I have asthma and must sleep under filtered air. The temperature inside our house was 90 degrees F. My husband was beginning to show signs of heat exhaustion.
We had to do something.
We went out and bought a generator but because our home has central air which we could not run off the generator, we also had to buy a window unit.
We got the cheapest 1 we could find. It was $50 at Home Depot. I've been told that Walmart carries them for a similar price.
Don't try to get through it using box fans. Fans only cool you when the air they are blowing around is cool. Blowing hot air on someone who is overheated, is not going to do them any good.
If you do not have an air conditioner and truly cannot get hold of 1, go hang out in an air conditioned place. A restaurant, the public library, the mall, the home of a relative or friend who does have a.c.
If you are beginning to feel heat stress symptoms, go sit in the emergency room of your local hospital.
Heat Stress Management Heat Stress in the Elderly
Elderly people are much more likely to require emergency heat stress care than the general population. There are several reasons for this:
They often have other medical conditions.
They often cannot tell how hot they are. An elderly person who wears a coat in June is at particular risk. Their internal thermostat is useless where heat stress management is concerned.
Someone who suffers from this condition will dislike air conditioning. They will also tend not to run their fans.
They may be poor or just really frugal. They will refuse to run the air conditioner because they want to save on electricity.
They are almost always dehydrated.
You can drink coffee and tea all day long but it won't help you with heat stress management. The caffeine in it prevents your tissues from absorbing the water.
When you can get them to drink water, they will often sip the same cup of liquid all day. They think they are drinking enough.
This is what Big Mom used to do: Chris would go over to get her ready for bed and turn the fan on. Big Mom would wait until Chris left and turn it off.
My mother-in-law would give Big Mom a glass of water and say drink this. Big Mom would take 2 sips and say, "I did".
My Heat Stress Management Advice:
Do not leave elderly people on their own during a heat wave. Bring them home with you until temperatures return to normal. This way, you can monitor their intake of fluids and watch them for symptoms of heat stroke.
Also, be sure to keep a close eye on an elderly person who has been exposed to high heat even after they are in a cool room.
Heat stress can be very sneaky.
They can be fine while they are out in the heat and fall ill several hours after going indoors.
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