Fun in the Sun Means Proper Preparation
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
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
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