One of the biggest dangers of being active is overheating. When you’re making that final push in a race or just having fun during a strenuous run or bike ride, you can overheat without realizing it.
This is not simple dehydration or the need for electrolytes, though of course that contributes and even causes both conditions. The danger is because when the body temperature rises to a point where it can’t get quickly get rid of too much heat, it can lead to organ and brain damage, even death.
If your mind is totally focused on your activity, you may not even be aware of the situation until you get dizzy and collapse. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms, not only for yourself, but to help others who may be in danger without knowing it.
Serious overheating is marked by two stages: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Exhaustion can usually be cured by drinking water or other liquids, resting in the shade and being wet down with a damp cloth or spray bottle (don’t pour water on someone with heat exhaustion; that can be too big a shock to the body).
Heat stroke is when body temperature passes beyond mere “exhaustion.” It can happen quickly. Heat stroke is a medical emergency that requires immediate and urgent medical care. The body’s temperature control may no longer be able to function, and the result can be organ failure, brain damage and even death.
Here are symptoms of both conditions:
A person with heat exhaustion will be uncomfortable and may be dizzy. Their skin will feel cool and clammy but their forehead may be hot, as if they have a mild fever of 100-101 degrees. Their conversation and mental state will be normal, though they may be more cranky than usual.
This condition more often affects those who aren’t used to hot temperatures, such as people who normally live an air-conditioned lifestyle suddenly spending time in hot areas such as Southern California, Arizona or a desert environment. If you feel uncomfortably hot, get into some shade, loosen your clothing and guzzle liquid — preferably a sports drink with electrolytes. Keep resting even after you feel better; it takes time for the body’s internal temperature to return to normal.
A person with heat stroke will have dry and very hot skin. Blood vessels expand to help dispel the heat, making the skin flush red. Lips may be swollen, but the eyes will seem sunken. A body temperature above 103 indicates heat stroke, rather than exhaustion. They may not be coherent, unable to speak normally and their speech may not make sense. They will seem confused and can also have hallucinations. Vomiting and being unable to stand or walk normally are additional symptoms.
Unlike exhaustion, where the condition improves with the drinking of liquids, the heat stroke victim may not even be able to swallow liquids and drinking doesn’t make symptoms go away. The heart rate may be elevated and breathing may be shallow and fast. They may lose consciousness.
With the emergency of heat stroke, there may be an urge to immerse the victim in cool water. Don’t. Cool water will make the blood vessels constrict, thus slowing essential dissipation of heat. Call emergency medical care immediately; if there’s no cellphone coverage, have someone go for help.
The best solution is, of course, prevention. Don’t push yourself too hard when it’s hot outside, and don’t let anyone with you do it either.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly. For the latest in training and workout information, visit adventuresportsweekly.com.