Too hot to handle: SC experts weigh in on how to protect yourself from heat-related illnesses
If you've stepped outside in the past week, you know it's hot. While summer means fun in the sun, hot days can become dangerous and sometimes deadly.
Exposure to excessive heat can lead to heat-related illnesses such as heat rashes, cramps, exhaustion and, more severe, heat stroke. The most recent data from the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office show over 1,400 emergency department visits for heat illnesses in 2021. This number is down by 1,000 from the previous year.
However, there are steps to avoid heat illnesses. But what are they, and how does excessive heat impact the body?
Normally, when we get hot, our bodies begin to sweat, allowing us to cool off. However, the Centers for Disease Control say sweating may not be enough to keep us cool in extreme heat.
On days when the heat index is high, meaning it is humid outside, sweat can make us hotter, according to Megan Borowski, meteorologist for the South Carolina Emergency Information Network.
"But if there's a lot of water vapor in the atmosphere, our sweat will not evaporate," she says. "So, it actually makes it feel warmer because now we've got this layer of warm sweat on us."
To avoid heat illness, the American Red Cross says people should spend time in air conditioning every day.
Mandy McMahon, a communications director for the American Red Cross, says, "when temperatures are in the high 90s fans may not prevent heat-related illness, so a good way to prevent that is by taking a cool shower or bath or moving to an air-conditioned place to cool off."
Dr. Matthew Bitner, president of the South Carolina College of Emergency Physicians, says staying hydrated is essential.
"Additionally, you should drink more water than you usually do," he says. "If you wait until you're actually thirsty, then you're actually behind the eight-ball."
Young children, older adults, and pregnant people are at higher risk for heat illnesses. Dr. Bitner says older adults often don't handle temperature changes well and may take medicine that causes them to sweat less.
He gives this advice for caregivers of young children: "So, you know, a good rule of thumb is that if you are hot or you are thirsty, your child may be hot and or thirsty."
According to South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office data, July and August had the highest hospitalizations and emergency department visits for heat illnesses in recent years.
So, if you are out in the heat, it's good to know the signs of heat stroke, which is deadly and requires medical attention. You should call 911 if someone has hot and dry skin, is confused, and is not sweating.
According to Dr. Bitner, such symptoms can indicate serious problems.
"So classically, when you think about heat stroke and heat-related illness, anybody who has a change in mental status and is not sweating should be a red flag because most everybody who lives in South Carolina knows that if you go outside, you start to sweat."
Heat exhaustion is slightly less severe and includes heavy sweating, fast pulse, cold and pale skin. People with these signs should move to a cool place and loosen tight clothing. The CDC recommends getting medical help if someone with signs of heat exhaustion starts to vomit or if symptoms last over an hour.
Dr. Bitner suggests using a buddy system to keep yourself and others safe.
He says, "If you are a victim of a severe heat-related illness, you may not know that you are a victim of severe heat-related illness and so having somebody keep an eye out for you is always good."