Protect Yourself from Heat-Related Illness

Have Fun & Stay Safe

Summer is the time for fun, vacations, picnics, and outdoor activities. It can also be the time for extreme weather conditions, including dangerously high temperatures in some areas of the United States. While heat waves can sometimes last for days, the impact they have can last for much longer.

A “heat wave” occurs the when temperature rises to abnormally high levels for two or more continuous days.  In most of the United States, a heat wave is more likely to occur from May through September. Heat-related illnesses are typically the highest during July and August, but can happen at any time.

It is also worth noting that the heat index or temperature reported may not take into account stagnant air, and the impact that heat can have on someone with pre-existing conditions.  If you work or exercise in these conditions, be very cautious, especially if you have underlying health issues or are not used to the heat. Extreme heat can make it difficult for the body to regulate temperature through normal methods such as sweating and breathing. Exposure to the sun’s rays can also burn the outer layer of the skin.

Know Your Risks

According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), each year in the United States there are 67,512 visits to the emergency department for heat-related illnesses (also called hyperthermia). While most people are treated and released, 9,235 of those individuals end up hospitalized. Although rare, 702 people die each year from heat-related illnesses.

The impact of extremely high temperatures extends beyond physical health –it can also create stress a number of other factors. Power supplies can be put to the test as more people use air conditioning. Farmers, power plants, and people all need more water. Certain types of workers may lose wages or incur high medical bills if they are unable to work due to the heat or become ill. Hot weather can truly have a ripple effect.

People who work in certain fields can be particularly at risk to heat-related illnesses and should take special precautions. Construction workers, fire fighters, law enforcement, utility workers, warehouse employees, factory workers, and agricultural workers are just a few examples. Whether you work outside, exercise outdoors, or just enjoy basking in the sun, knowing your risks and taking protective measures can go a long way toward staying safe and healthy.

Take Precautions

According to, recommendations include:

  • If working or spending time outside, have a shaded area to rest to avoid constant exposure to the sun’s harmful rays.
  • Drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeinated, sugary, and alcoholic beverages, as each of those can contribute to dehydration.
  • Replace electrolytes. If you are sweating heavily, you need to take in enough electrolytes and sodium to replace what you have lost through your perspiration.
  • Drink BEFORE you get thirsty. Do not wait until you feel thirsty – thirst can be one of the first signs of dehydration.
  • Adjust work hours or when you exercise outside, if possible, to avoid the hottest times of the day.  Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Read the directions and reapply as recommended. Prolonged exposure to then sun can result in sunburn – and can contribute to skin cancer.
  • Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing and a wide-brimmed hat. Lighter colors help to reflect the sun’s rays while darker colors are more likely to absorb them.
  • Understand the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Be sure to take action sooner versus later.

Dr. Aaron Robertson, Medical Director of PAM Health Rehabilitation of Fargo, expanded on the advice above:  “PREVENTION is paramount… The body responds to dehydration relatively slowly so by the time thirst kicks in, you are already in the danger zone when it comes to being in intense heat.  We need to drink significantly more than we think we need to, and the key is to start before the exposure. We should continue to drink throughout the time in the heat even if we aren't feeling thirsty.”

Heat-related Illnesses 

Some of the most common heat-related illnesses include:

  • Heat stroke – the most severe reaction to heat exposure, heat stroke can cause organs to shut down, causing damage to the body and, in extreme cases, even death. Signs of heat stroke include confusion, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.
  • Heat exhaustion – Heat exhaustion is the step prior to heat stroke. Signs and symptoms include nausea, dizziness, thirst, heavy sweating, and weakness.
  • Heat cramps – This can often be the first sign that the body is having trouble with the heat. Signs include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, and spasms.
  • Sunburn – Prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can result in sunburn. Signs of sunburn include skin that is red, hot to the touch, and inflamed. In extreme situations, the skin may also blister.

Get Treatment

Treatment for each of these conditions varies depending upon the severity of the illness and the overall health of the individual. For heat stroke, it is imperative to call 911 as soon as possible. In each situation, consult with a medical professional for advice on the appropriate steps to take.

The good news is that most heat-related illness is preventable. By understanding your risks and taking the steps to stay healthy, you can work, exercise, and play outside safely.  At PAM Health, we care about your health and want you to be as healthy as possible so you can live your best life. Our goal is to provide education and support to prevent illness or injury whenever possible.