Sick of the heat: Illnesses and deaths from scorching temps in Maine

Posted Aug. 13, 2012, at 1:53 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 13, 2012, at 3:57 p.m.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition. Warning signs include hot, dry, red skin (no sweating), rapid pulse, high body temperature (105 F or higher), headache, loss of alertness, confusion, rapid and shallow breathing, and unconsciousness or coma.

What to do: Call 911 immediately. While waiting for assistance, cool the person rapidly with such methods as moving them to a shady or cooler area; using cool water; applying ice to the head, neck, armpits, and groin area; fans; and loosening their clothing.

Heat exhaustion

Symptoms include heavy sweating, fainting, vomiting, cold, pale and clammy skin, dizziness, headache, nausea and weakness.

What to do: Move the person to a cool place, have them drink fluids and rest, loosen their clothes, and cool them off with water or wet cloths. Heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke. So, if symptoms worsen or do not improve, get medical help.

Information from Maine CDC.

During Maine’s popular Beach to Beacon 10K road race on Aug. 4, dozens of athletes streamed into the medical tent, weakened by the day’s scorching heat.

Some runners’ body temperatures spiked as high as 108 degrees, causing confusion and agitation as medical staff plunged the athletes into ice baths to cool them down, according to Dr. Michael Baumann, medical director for the race and chief of emergency medicine at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“If you walked by them on the street, you’d think they were deranged,” he said of the overheated runners.

Of the 76 Beach to Beacon participants treated by medical staff this year, about 60 percent suffered from a heat-related condition, Baumann said.

“Cooling them off is the most important thing, rather than getting them to a hospital,” he said.

Heat-related illnesses result when the body fails to cool itself and include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburn and heat rash, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Dehydration is also a concern in hot temperatures.

But you don’t have to be exercising in extreme heat to succumb to it. This summer, heat waves have been blamed for deaths in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Chicago and Kansas City. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the lower 48 states, eclipsing the previous record set in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

National Weather Service data show that heat was second only to tornadoes for weather-related deaths in 2011.

Heat-related deaths are rare in Maine, but the state is often unprepared for blistering temperatures, according to research by the Maine CDC. Only about half of Maine homes have air conditioning, and many schools and nursing homes go without it.

Between 2001 and 2009, the most recent years for which data was available, Maine saw 144 hospitalizations and 1,766 emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion, according to the Maine CDC’s environmental and occupational health division.

Elderly Mainers over age 65, especially women, accounted for more than half of the hospital visits.

Older people are often less mobile and unable to escape the heat, Baumann said.

“They can’t regulate their temperatures as well,” he said.

Elderly patients typically show up in the ER with dehydration or weakness, rather than sky-high body temperatures like the Beach to Beacon runners, he said.

Maine CDC pegged the health care costs from heat-related hospitalizations and ER visits over the eight-year period at $1.8 million.

The state recorded six deaths caused by excessive heat during that time.

Maine CDC also estimated the effects of extreme heat on people with chronic illnesses. Between 2001 and 2007, Maine recorded 1,600 additional hospitalizations as hot weather exacerbated patients’ existing health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. All those extra hospital visits cost about $15 million over the six-year period, Maine CDC estimated.

At Maine Medical Center’s emergency room, doctors see cases of respiratory problems such as asthma tick up from the high ozone levels that typically accompany hot days, Baumann said.

The National Weather Service issues advisories when the heat index, a measure of temperature and humidity, climbs especially high, but Mainers often wind up in the hospital before that point, according to Maine CDC.

For tips on how to stay cool, visit the Maine CDC’s website at maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/environmental-health/heat/general/infor.shtml#Toc266364177.

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