Treat the Heat
March 24, 2011
In Australia, where I'm from, a public health campaign encourages individuals to "slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, slide on some sunnies (sunglasses) and seek shade." While this campaign is directed mainly at preventing skin cancer, the summer sun also puts us at great risk for other health injuries.
Heat injury and illness pose a significant threat to Army personnel, whether deployed, assigned to a training center or just partaking in outdoor recreational activities. Heat-related injuries are the third-most reported medical event within the military over the last 10 years and are responsible for more than 1,300 hospitalizations in the Army alone. Minor heat illnesses such as heat cramps are often the first sign of a heat injury. If not treated properly, the result can be heat exhaustion, which can turn into a major injury such as heat stroke.
Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms - usually in the abdomen, arms or legs - that can occur during strenuous activity. Soldiers who perspire a lot are more likely to suffer from heat cramps because sweating depletes the body of salt. Drinking large quantities of water after exercise can dilute body salts even further, which can worsen heat cramps.
If you believe you're suffering from heat cramps, stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place. Drink clear juice or a sports beverage or add a half packet of salt from an MRE to a canteen of water. It's best to refrain from strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps subside because further exertion could lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If the cramps do not subside in one hour, seek medical attention.
Heat exhaustion is the most common heat injury. A Soldier suffering from heat exhaustion will often look pale with cool, moist skin, but will be sweating profusely. This can be accompanied by feelings of dizziness or faintness, headache, nausea and weakness, as well as increased thirst and a rapid heartbeat.
If a Soldier is suffering from heat exhaustion, there are several steps to take. First, move the victim to the shade and loosen their clothing in an attempt to cool the body. Drink at least a canteen of cool water. You can even pour water on the exposed skin and fan to cool. If available, put ice or sheets that have been soaked in ice water on the neck, armpits and groin. Elevate the legs. If the symptoms do not subside, get the victim medical care.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency often resulting from exercise or heavy work in hot environments combined with insufficient fluid intake. When the body's mechanisms for handling heat stress fail, the result can be heat stroke, which can be life-threatening. The main indicator for heat stroke is an elevated body temperature, generally greater than 104 F. This can lead to changes in mental status, unconsciousness and coma. Other signs to look for are rapid heartbeat, hurried and shallow breathing, headache, nausea, irritability, confusion and a cessation of sweating. Sometimes, fainting can be the first sign for older adults.
If an individual is suspected of suffering from heat stroke, immediate care can mean the difference between life and death. Call 911 or get the person medical attention as soon as possible. Loosen or remove clothing and cool the body with cool water, ice packs or ice sheets. Have the victim take sips of cool water or a sports drink if they're alert and able. Avoid alcohol and anything with caffeine.
To help avoid heat-related injuries, Leaders and Soldiers should:
Aca,!AcDrink plenty of fluids. In hot environments, it's possible for the body to lose one liter of fluids per hour. Thirst is not a good indicator of fluid loss. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink fluids.
Aca,!AcBe aware of their environment. If you work in the heat or around heat sources, take whatever steps are possible to control the heat externally. It's also recommended that ice sheets be readily available during high-risk activities to reduce the severity of a heat injury.
Aca,!AcTake frequent breaks. As the temperature increases, take more frequent breaks to stay cool.
Aca,!AcWear proper clothing. Loose, lightweight fabrics encourage heat release.
Aca,!AcAcclimatize. It takes at least seven to 10 days to get used to working in a hot environment.
Aca,!AcStay in shape. A healthy heart and good muscle tone work more efficiently and generate less heat.
Aca,!AcEat light during the workday. Hot, heavy meals add heat to the body and divert blood flow to aid with digestion. Normal dietary intake typically replaces all salt lost during the day, so there is no need to take salt supplements.
Aca,!AcBe aware of special heat stress risks. Caffeine, alcohol, diabetes or medications for high blood pressure and allergies can increase the risk of heat stress.
Each year, Soldiers fall victim to preventable heat injuries. Although Leaders are accountable for their Soldiers' health, Soldiers also have an obligation to mitigate their risk. Stay fit to fight this summer. Take the appropriate preventive measures and monitor yourself and your battle buddies for the signs of heat-related injuries.