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Man, Is It Ever Hot!

I was at an outdoor event for much of the weekend, and, boy, was it beastly out there. My family and I drank liters and liters of bottled water, and we took frequent refuge in the shady interior of our 1978 VW bus. But still there were moments when I looked at my son's bright-red, sweat-soaked face and worried he was on the brink of heat exhaustion. That's when we made him sit down in the shade and poor cool water over his head.

He wasn't alone. The medics were busy all weekend tending to people -- mostly kids --who had succumbed to heat exhaustion. My son's friend was one of the stricken: he was pale, tired, and weak and complained of nausea, dizziness, and a headache -- all classic heat exhaustion symptoms. (Others include cool, moist skin, fainting, a fast, weak pulse, and fast, shallow breathing.) The EMTs plunked him down in front of one of those amazing misting fans, and he felt better pretty soon.

We'd been through that with our daughter years ago; I had dragged the family all over Newport, Rhode Island, in blistering heat, not thinking I was putting anyone's health in jeopardy. When we sat down on a ferry to cross the bay, though, our daughter turned ghastly pale and vomited. A friendly fellow passenger saved the day, first by telling us our daughter had heat exhaustion and then by spraying her face with a mister bottle. I now carry a mister with me in the car, just in case.

Heat exhaustion kicks in when your body's normal cooling system -- perspiration -- is unable to keep up with the high outdoor temperature. Your body depends on the evaporation of sweat to keep its temperature in a normal range. But if it's very humid, sweat can't evaporate quickly enough to do the trick. And sometimes the body just can't sweat enough to keep pace with the thermometer. Elderly people and tiny tots are more vulnerable than others to heat exhaustion, as their temperature-regulating systems don't work so well.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that heat's a major health threat: according to the CDC Web site (linked below),

Historically, from 1979-2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States. During this period, more people in this country died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

It's important to take heat exhaustion seriously and to treat it before it escalates into life-threatening heat stroke. When the outside temperature is so high that the body loses its ability to cool itself, a person's body temperature can spike very quickly, reaching 103°F, even 106°F, in no time flat. At that temperature, the brain and other organs can be permanently damaged. Symptoms of heat stroke include red, hot, and dry skin -- with no sweating -- a rapid, strong pulse, a throbbing headache, dizziness, confusion, and nausea. If you see someone with heat stroke, you need to do two things right away: call 911 and cool that person down any way you can: dunk them in a tub of cool water, spray them with a garden hose, sponge their skin with water. Keep at it until help arrives.

The best way to handle heat-related illness is to avoid getting overheated in the first place. The CDC offers this roundup of information about how to recognize, treat, and avoid heat-related illness. Here are some tips for keeping your cool:

- In hot weather, pace yourself; don't push as hard as usual, and and plan activities so you're not exerting yourself at the hottest times of the day.
- Drink lots of fluid, even when you don't think you're thirsty. But avoid alcohol and drinks with lots of sugar. Drink sports drinks to replenish the salts you've lost through sweating, but check with your doctor first if you're on a low-sodium diet.
- Wear as little clothing as possible when you're at home, and when you're out, wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothes.
- Hook up with a buddy; agree to keep an eye on one another for signs of heat illness.
- If your house (as mine does) lacks air conditioning, use the heat as an excuse to go to the mall where it's nice and cool.

This heat wave is due to end soon, thank goodness. But summer's just started, and I foresee many more scorchers.

How do you and your family keep cool in the summer? Have you had any scary brushes with heat-related illness? Please share your tips and stories.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 10, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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