Hot, humid and dry. These words amply describe the month of July (and probably August). They also describe perfect conditions for heat-related illnesses. The most common heat-related illnesses that occur in the summer are heat stroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. People who are most at risk are the elderly, especially those with underlying chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and people of any age who are exercising in hot, humid conditions.
In the last four weeks I have participated in a few popular, large, outdoor events such as Afrofest, Caribana Flags & Colours Children Youth Festival and the 14th Annual Christian Youth Sports Academy (CYSA) Track and Field Meet. All of these events are family-oriented and well attended by people of all ages and in the case of the CYSA Track and Field Meet, in which I helped to coordinate and manage the health care services, people are engaging in strenuous physical activity.
As in previous years, working at the CYSA meet is both challenging and rewarding. It is a fantastic opportunity to support athletes of all ages and levels working hard to improve their performance, remain physically fit and help their church accumulate points in this friendly but competitive event.
In most cases, our job is simply to prevent and treat injuries. However, sometimes our services are split between helping athletes prepare and ‘fine tune’ before their competition and caring for weak, light-headed, and exhausted athletes who are suffering from dehydration or heat exhaustion.
Dehydration and heat exhaustion occur when the body content of water and salt has dropped below normal levels. When this happens, the body’s ability to carry oxygen and energy to working muscles, including the brain, is impaired. The body’s ability to maintain a healthy salt concentration is also impaired. For this reason it is important to be aware of the warning signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
The warning signs and symptoms of dehydration and heat exhaustion are thirst; irritability; headache; nausea; cramps; dizziness; weakness; decreased performance; rapid shallow breathing; rapid and thready pulse or cool and moist skin.
A special comment should be made about thirst. We have to be careful not to rely on our thirst to determine our body’s need for fluid. By the time athletes and non-athletes feel thirsty, it is already too late, they have already lost needed fluids and electrolytes and may be dehydrated.
Effects of Dehydration and Heat Exhaustion
Dehydration of greater than three per cent of body weight increases your risk of heat stroke, the most serious heat-related illness.
Dehydration of just one per cent to two per cent of body weight (only 1.5 lbs. to 3 lbs. for a 150-lbs. athlete) can negatively influence performance.
Dehydration can affect an athlete’s performance in less than an hour of exercise – sooner if the athlete begins the session dehydrated.
It is a good idea to know what to do if someone is suffering from dehydration or heat exhaustion. Take them to a cool, shaded area as quickly as possible. Have the person sit down and elevate their feet. Cool the individual with a fan or ice on the scalp, armpits or groin area. Replace fluid loss with a cool, six per cent to eight per cent (g/100ml) carbohydrate-electrolyte solution. Avoid sodas and sport drinks with a carbohydrate (sugar) content greater than eight per cent, because they are not absorbed as quickly. Monitor the individual and if their symptoms deteriorate, seek medical attention immediately. In most cases, keeping them cool, providing psychological support and gradual hydration of the individual is all that is necessary.
If you are exercising, either outside or in a poorly ventilated gym, here are some hydration tips you should use:
Before exercise you should consume at least eight ounces (one cup) of a fluid that contains carbohydrates and electrolytes (sodium chloride and potassium). The ideal is a six per cent carbohydrate-electrolyte solution.
During exercise, you should drink four to eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes.
After exercise, drink 16 ounces for every pound of weight lost (weigh yourself before and immediately after exercise to determine how much you have lost).
Dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are largely preventable. Plan ahead and prepare yourself for the activities and the environment. Remember, you do not have to be in an athletic competition to become dehydrated. In fact, there will likely be dozens of people participating in any of the remaining summertime outdoor events who will not be able to enjoy the festivities because they are suffering from dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
So, whether you’re spending the day at the park, going to a BBQ, an outdoor boot camp or getting ready to ‘Play Mas’ to your heart’s content, make sure you bring your water bottle and hat along with your flag!
Dr. Christopher J. Morgan is the director of Morgan Chiropractic & Wellness, an interdisciplinary health centre in Toronto, and the President of the Black Health Alliance, a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in partnership to advance the health and well-being of the Black community. He can be reached at 416-447-7600 or firstname.lastname@example.org