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How to avoid heat-related illness amid Austin's triple-digit temperatures

A person lies down on the grass under the sun in a park.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
With temperatures in the triple-digits, Austin health officials are urging people to take steps to avoid heat-related illness.

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With no end in sight to triple-digit temperatures, the likelihood of experiencing illnesses from the heat is high, and health officials are urging Austinites to take precautions.

What do heat-related illnesses look like?

The symptoms of a heat-related illness include muscle cramps, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Captain Darren Noak says the calls EMS gets range from minor heat exhaustion to life-threatening heat stroke.

“Minor heat emergencies can quickly grow into life-threatening heat emergencies so obviously preparation and prevention is the key to keep you out of that situation in the first place,” Noak said. “The first step in the cascade of heat emergencies is heat cramping. That’s when you start having that calf cramp, or maybe even abdominal cramping. Something of that nature.”

The exact cause of heat cramps is unknown but is likely related to an electrolyte imbalance in your muscles. An easy way to avoid heat cramps is to drink fluids with electrolytes. Drinking too much water after sweating profusely can contribute to the electrolyte imbalance.

“The next step up is going to be heat exhaustion,” Noak said. “You can find yourself with profuse sweating, maybe some dizziness or lightheadedness, a little nausea perhaps starts setting in.”

Heat exhaustion is more serious, and is caused by exposure to high heat, particularly when it is paired with high humidity or strenuous activity. It can lead to heat stroke if left untreated. An altered state of mind is a sign of potential heat stroke.

“If you encounter anyone with an altered level of consciousness where they’re unable to form words, they’re unable to speak or they’re unconscious, that's when we really truly are into a life-threatening heat emergency,” Noak said.

What do you do if someone is experiencing a heat-related illness?

If someone you know is suffering from a heat-related illness, there are steps you can take to help them cool down before it gets worse. If you notice someone going through a heat-related illness, Noak said “you want to move them, cool them and call 911."

“Get them into a cooler environment and start that cooling process. If you don’t have ice packs readily available, obviously you can loosen or remove some of their clothing,” Noak said. “If you can get an electrolyte drink, that would be great.”

Noak suggests slowly sipping rather than guzzling when drinking. Guzzling can induce vomiting, which can compound the dehydration process.

How do you prevent heat-related illness?

Hydration is only one way to prevent heat-related illness. Other measures you can take include staying indoors in an air-conditioned space, avoiding caffeinated or alcoholic beverages and planning strenuous activity for the early morning. If you must be outside for work or any activity, frequent breaks in the shade can help reduce your risk of feeling sick.

“Sometimes people’s medical conditions and even the medications they take can affect the way their body reacts to the extreme heat we are having as well,” Noak said.

These medications include antipsychotics, antihistamines and antidepressants. Conditions like heart and lung disease, poor circulation and obesity can put you at a higher risk of heat-related illness. Children and the elderly are also at a higher risk of heat-related illness.

“Their abilities of their bodies to temperature-regulate is less than a normal adult's would be,” Noak said. “They’re more susceptible to the heat, and they can’t make those adjustments in their body as readily as everyone else.”

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