Prolonged exposure to heat can have a number of adverse physical and emotional effects, but awareness and proper care can help people of all ages beat the heat monster, said Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts.

“Excessive exposure to a hot environment, especially while active or working, can bring about any of a number of disorders or illnesses related to hyperthermia,” said Dr. Carol Rice, AgriLife Extension specialist in health and wellness education. “Some of the physical effects range from heat cramps to edema – swelling of the ankles and feet – rash, exhaustion or heat stroke.”

Rice said one of the major contributors to heat-related illness is dehydration.

“Even under normal temperature conditions, we lose a lot of fluids through bodily functions such as breathing and sweating and those fluids must be replaced,” she said. “Living and working in a hot environment significantly increases fluid loss. Under normal temperature conditions, drink nine to 13 cups of fluid a day. In a hot environment, you may need to drink as much as one cup every 20 minutes.”

Rice said chronic fatigue, lethargy and constant headache may be symptoms of dehydration. Others may include dizziness, impaired performance, clammy skin, rapid pulse, dry mouth, swelling, gastric problems and changes in consciousness level.

She said some ways to reduce or adjust to heat exposure include limiting  activity until the body adjusts to the warmer temperature, avoiding strenuous  activity during the warmest part of the day, staying indoors as much as  possible to avoid direct exposure, wearing loose-fitting, lightweight, light- colored clothing, wearing a hat and drinking plenty of water.

Rice also suggested eating smaller, lighter meals more often and avoiding high-protein foods that may increase metabolic heat.

“Of course, we always try to reiterate that people should never leave pets or  kids in closed vehicles and to remember to check on relatives or neighbors who  spend much of their time alone,” she said. And don’t try and rehydrate by drinking beverages containing alcohol, as those may have the opposite effect and you’re already probably somewhat impaired by the heat.”

Most vulnerable

Rice said young children, outdoor workers and athletes are at higher risk from excessive heat.

“Children produce more heat and sweat less than adults,” she said. “They also are not as self-aware and need adults to remind them to drink enough fluids, so parents and other care providers need to make sure kids acclimate to the heat and stay adequately hydrated.”

Rice said children particularly at risk for heat-related illness are those who are overweight, don’t regularly exercise, have had a recent illness that included vomiting or diarrhea, or take medication that may dehydrate them

“People who work outdoors or participate in outdoor athletics are also particularly susceptible,” she added. “They too must ensure they take frequent rest and water breaks and don’t overtax themselves. And if at all possible, try and do the most strenuous activities in the morning before it gets too hot.”

Older people too are at higher risk for heat-related illness as their bodies are less able to adjust and respond to heat exposure as they advance in years,” said Andy Crocker, an AgriLife Extension specialist in health and wellness for older adults. “As people age, their circulation and sweat glands become less efficient and their body’s ability to conserve water is reduced.”

Crocker added that chronic illness, hormonal changes, medication, disability and neglect are also issues that may contribute to heat-related illness among the elderly. One special consideration for older adults is that they speak with their health provider about how reactions to their medications may be affected by the heat.

“Someone on a diuretic or water-restricted treatment may not be able to drink a lot of fluids,” he said. “Older people should discuss this with a doctor or pharmacist to see how (they) should handle this situation in the extreme heat.”

Extreme heat also can have a psychological or emotional impact on people of all ages, noted Dr. Rick Peterson, AgriLife Extension family life specialist.

Peterson said research has shown that high heat is a factor in sleeplessness, which may increase the risk of aggression -- or at least cause a reduction in tolerance.

“Sleep experts say your bedroom needs to be dark and cool,” he said. “Make sure bedding is of natural fiber and use a fan to circulate the air, especially if there’s limited or no air conditioning. Also, if possible, move your bed closer to the floor where it’s likely to be cooler or try sleeping in another room of the house that’s cooler than your bedroom.”

Peterson said prolonged exposure to heat can also result in an escalation of overall stress or contribute to a sort of emotional “piling-up or ballooning” effect, especially if someone is already under some type of stress.”

He said while some people may require professional assistance with stress management, they might try a few things to help reduce it, including:

  • Staying out of the outdoors as much as possible.
  • Adapting the way they view a situation and adapting a more positive attitude.
  • Accepting what they cannot change about a situation and focusing on the things they can to make it better.

For more information on the effects of heat exposure and how to better manage that exposure, read Texas A&M University System’s Family and Consumer Sciences  HealthHints newsletter on this topic at  http://fcs.tamu.edu/health/healthhints/2008/aug/heat.pdf