ST. GEORGE — It can happen to anyone: One minute someone is working in the yard or hiking on one of the many trails in Southern Utah, the next they’re overheating. With summer well underway and temperatures already sweltering, it’s time to take the heat seriously. Hot weather is more than just irritating and uncomfortable – it can have dire health consequences.
Each summer, the St. George Fire Department responds to numerous heat related calls. St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said people need to be mindful of how the heat is affecting their bodies.
“Heat related injuries can not only be serious but deadly if not taken care of,” said Stoker.
Heat injuries fall into three basic categories increasing in severity: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat cramps are the first sign the body is struggling from the heat. Symptoms include heavy sweating, a mild fever and painful cramps, especially in the legs. Stoker said heat cramps aren’t as serious as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, but this can lead to both conditions. If someone is experiencing heat cramps, Stoker advises getting them into a cool place and having them drink water or a beverage that replaces electrolytes.
Heat exhaustion is the next level of heat injury. In this state, a person usually has a temperature over 102 degrees and may experience nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness or even fainting. A person suffering from heat exhaustion should find a cool place out of the sun and begin replenishing fluids. Stoker recommends using a cool towel to try and draw the heat out of the body.
Don’t go over overboard, however. Stoker said drastic measures like dumping a cooler full of cold water on someone could shock the body and increase the trauma.
In extreme cases, people can suffer from heat stroke. This is when the body is unable to control its temperature and the sweating mechanism fails. The temperature of the body may rise to 106 degrees or higher, leading to a racing heart, rapid breathing, vomiting, confusion and the inability to make rational decisions. The skin has changed from a cool and clammy state to being red, hot and dry. In some cases, a person may even lose consciousness.
An ounce of prevention
Stoker said the best way to prevent heat related injuries is not let them happen to begin with. He suggests doing outdoor activities in the early morning or late evening. Wearing lightweight clothing and a hat can also help. But the chief added that the most important thing people can do is stay hydrated.
“When you’re out exercising or doing outdoor activities, make sure you’re carrying more water than you believe you’ll need,” Stoker said.
A lot of the calls rescue agencies respond to during the summer in Southern Utah are from hikers who suddenly find themselves in trouble. Stoker said many underestimate the amount of water their bodies require. Adding insult to injury, a lot of the trails in this part of the world don’t offer much shade.
When it comes to construction workers and others who have to be outside all day, Stoker advises taking frequent breaks in the shade, keeping a cool towel on the neck, consuming lots of fluids and replacing electrolytes that have been lost through sweating.
Humans depend on water to survive. Water makes up 50-70% of a person’s body weight. Christie Benton, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at the Live Well Center in St. George, said proper hydration is essential to good health.
“If you’re down 2% or more loss of your body mass from hydration, you’ll start feeling the fatigue,” Benton said. “You might become a little foggy in the brain functions.”
Benton said as a general rule, people should consume eight glasses of fluids or 64 ounces per day. Exact amounts can vary depending on age, sex, weight, climate and how hard the body is working. It’s important to note all fluids are not created equal. When it comes to hydrating the body, Benton says water is by far the best bet. Diuretic beverages, such as those that contain caffeine, can actually take points off the hydration board. However, Benton said people who become acclimated to caffeine do not usually see the diuretic effect.
Beverage companies often tout drinks that are infused with electrolytes which are lost when the body sweats. Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium and calcium which the body needs to function properly. While food is always the best source for electrolytes, Benton said when someone is working hard and sweating profusely, they can benefit from drinks that contain electrolytes.
“We have to have the balance between sodium and potassium,” Benton said. “If one of those goes out of whack, we are in the hospital.”
Benton’s best tip for preventing dehydration is to always carry a water bottle and sip it throughout the day.
“You can’t rely on thirst as the driver for hydration because it isn’t going to hit us until we are parched,” she said.
Keeping older adults safe in the summer
Older adults are especially vulnerable when it comes to heat-related injuries. This doesn’t mean they should stay indoors all summer. Isolation and lack of exercise carry with them their own problems. Facilities like the St. George Active Life Center aim to provide a variety of activities and services designed to meet the needs of older adults all year long.
Many programs offered through the center focus on hydration. Supervisor Jeanie Johnson said classes and handouts on hydration are available to older adults who use the center.
“We have placemats with information on them,” Johnson said. “When they sit down for lunch they can read about it.”
Johnson said older adults are encouraged to bring their own water bottles when they visit the center.
“We are a full exercise facility,” she said. “We have a fresh water fountain with filtered water.”
Exercise classes include Zumba, cardio drumming, Tai Chi, dancing, table tennis and yoga. St. George resident Brian Beer is one of many older adults who take advantage of the pickleball courts that are set up in the cafeteria once lunch has been served.
“During the summer this is great because you can feel the air conditioning,” Beer said. “You don’t have sunshine in your eyes, so it’s really good.”
The center in St. George can accommodate two pickleball courts, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Learn not to burn
Southern Utah may be hot, but it doesn’t have to be unhealthy for people. By drinking lots of water and taking advantage of cooler temperatures in the morning and evening, people can easily coexist with whatever Mother Nature serves up this summer.
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