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Fun in the Sun Means Proper Preparation

WebMD Health News

May 12, 2000 -- On this weekend of Mother's Day and heat waves, Russell Dreyer, MD, has an appropriate message: "Thank God for mothers. They do a lot of diagnosis that never gets recognized, and they do a lot of caretaking and recognition of the condition early on that they fix."

The condition Dreyer is referring to is heat exhaustion, and if the forecasts hold this weekend, many children and adults around the nation may feel some of the symptoms of heat sickness as they work or play in the sunshine.

Dreyer, who is co-director of several emergency rooms in the metro Atlanta area, has seen the symptoms many times. He and other experts say some rules of thumb for avoiding heat illness are: avoid being outside during the hottest part of the day; wear light, loose clothing; and, most important, drink plenty of fluids.

The consequences of getting overheated, Dreyer says, can be serious.

"People start off with thirst, and generally they ignore that," he tells WebMD. "But if you don't pay attention to thirst, then you start becoming a little bit weak as your electrolytes get out of balance, and your dehydration gets worse.

"One of the earlier signs would be muscle cramping, and then you progress to something like an altered mental status, you're not thinking as clearly, and that's getting to the danger point," he explains.

After that, your body's temperature-setting mechanism goes out and you quit sweating, and that means the body doesn't have any way to control the heat, Dreyer says. "It's an absolute emergency because all your tissues start to break down because your temperature goes up," says Dreyer, who adds that he has seen patients with body temperatures as high as 110 degrees.

Anyone who is outdoors -- or, for that matter, indoors without air conditioning -- is at risk of heat sickness, Dreyer says, but some categories of people are at greater risk.

They include the elderly, the young, and anyone who has mental impairments, as they may not be able to recognize when they are in danger. Alcoholics and people on medications that affect their thinking can be in danger, as can anyone in a debilitated state, like a stroke victim.

Dreyer says he sees a "fair number" of people with heat exhaustion who have been out on the baseball field or construction site for too long. But many victims of heat illness, particularly children, never get to the emergency room. "Quite a number of them are never diagnosed; they just go home feeling a little lousy, and they're real hot," he tells WebMD.

"If they're healthy, usually that's a self-limited disease. They get too tired to play, or they go home, or their mothers notice their faces are real red and they're sweating profusely and they take them home," Dreyer says.

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