Crucial Cool

Crucial Cool

Staying hydrated and managing your body temp is necessary for Chicago summers

Cheryl Carl, 33, never suspected that her tendency to overheat would land her in the hospital. A financial specialist in the nursing home industry and an otherwise healthy Chicagoan, Carl was on a Second City walking tour with her husband Ziggy when a headache kicked in.

It was a blistering Sunday in July. Carl drank a bottle of water during the tour. She downed a second bottle on the drive home to combat her escalating symptoms.

“My usual way of handling heat exhaustion is to take two Tylenol for the headache and take a nap, hoping that it will pass,” said Carl.

When she awoke from her nap that afternoon, however, her condition had not improved. Her excruciating headache gave way to vomiting.

Ziggy drove her to the hospital.

Upon arrival, Carl was given bags of IV fluids coupled with antinausea medication.  She returned home later that day, shaken by the experience.

Cheryl Carl’s bout with heat exhaustion is far from an anomaly. Though preventable, multitudes of Americans suffer from heat-related illnesses every year. In a worst-case scenario, prolonged heat exposure can lead to death.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “from 1979–2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States. During this period, more people in this country died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined.”

Dr. Rahul Khare, emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says he treats more than 100 cases of heat-related illnesses every summer. Most cases are diagnosed as heat exhaustion, which occurs when a person’s body temperature rises above 100° Fahrenheit. In addition to Carl’s symptoms of headaches and nausea, victims of heat exhaustion may suffer muscle cramping, weakness, intense thirst or an increased pulse rate.

Unless the victim rehydrates and escapes from the heat, body temperatures will continue to escalate. “When your body is unable to control your temperature [in] the ways that it normally does through sweating – through cooling down – you get heatstroke,” said Khare.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, you are considered to have heatstroke when your body temperature reaches 104 degrees F. Symptoms include rapid pulse, feeling faint, dizziness, difficulty breathing, confusion and an absence of sweating, with hot, red or flushed skin. If left unchecked, hallucinations and unconsciousness follow.

“The last thing that occurs is an altered mental [state],” said Khare. “When your temperature goes all the way up to 104, it’s very common for people to hallucinate because the brain does not work properly. The neurons do not perform in the way they should. … That’s [why] the terminology heatstroke. It’s really affecting the brain.”

This mental breakdown can inhibit one’s ability to seek medical attention; a heatstroke victim could pass out under the hot sun or lose the wherewithal to rehydrate.

“If you think someone is experiencing heatstroke, call 911, get [the person] out of the heat and provide fluids,” said Khare. He recommends lowering the body temperature by splashing or spraying the victim with cool water and hydrating him or her with a sports drink filled with electrolytes, sodium and potassium, which the body loses through sweating.

Khare noted that children and the elderly are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses and should take extra precautions in hot weather.

Elderly men and women often have less water in their bodies than middle-aged adults, thus increasing their chance of dehydration. High blood pressure medication and diuretics, whose usage is more common among senior citizens, render adults of any age more susceptible to heat exhaustion.

Alternatively, a child’s relatively small body mass puts him or her at extra risk. “If you imagine cooking something that has a large mass, it will take longer to heat,” said Khare, “So the smaller children are, the more quickly their body temperatures fluctuate.”

With a potentially brutal Chicago summer approaching, staying hydrated, remaining within walking distance of shaded areas and being dressed in cool clothing could be the difference between a pleasant day outdoors and a trip to the hospital. Knowing your body’s specific needs in response to hot weather could also prove a crucial ally in preventing heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

“I asked the doctors how to avoid this from happening again, and they basically said that my body is wired differently [from] other people’s,” said Carl. “My body requires more fluids in the heat.”

After a long winter, Chicagoans love the warm weather, but the trick to enjoying the heat is to make sure we stay hydrated and cool.