Stanford expert offers tips for avoiding heat-related illnesses

STANFORD - With forecasters predicting continued searing weather in the Bay Area for the next few days, the possibility of heat stroke is no joke. Hundreds of people die each year from heat-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - and that's probably an underestimate, said Robert Norris, MD, chief of emergency medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Here's how to protect yourself and others:

  • Avoid the heat. Stay indoors if you can. "If you don't have the luxury of air conditioning, spend the hottest part of the day at shopping malls, movie theaters, or anywhere else that's cool," said Norris.
  • Drink plenty of water. Sports drinks are helpful for replacing the salt lost during heavy sweating - though Norris recommends diluting them with water at a 1-to-1 ratio. "They're more concentrated than you really need," he said.
  • Avoid exertion. "It's important that coaches keep an eye on their team. Give them a break during the hottest time of the day," said Norris.
  • Salt pills are out. Doctors no longer recommend salt tablets on hot days to prevent heat stroke. Instead, a good normal diet and plenty of water is the ticket to weathering hot days.
  • Watch for effects of drugs. Some medications raise sensitivity to heat. Among these are Benadryl, an antihistamine, and Dramamine, which counters motion sickness.
  • Check in on elderly or disabled people living in homes without air conditioning.
  • Don't leave anyone waiting in a car if they can't get out themselves. "Cars can heat up to lethal levels very quickly. So be extremely cautious about leaving a child, an elderly person or a pet in the car while you run an errand. Bad things can happen," said Norris.

Heat stroke's not the only heat-related illness, just the most notorious. It's a medical emergency. Less extreme conditions include heat exhaustion and heat cramps. All should be taken seriously, said Norris. If you need to cool someone off in a hurry, try moving them to a cooler spot, wetting them (unless the humidity is high), fanning them and feeding them cool liquids.

A quick look at the major heat-related illnesses:

  • Heat stroke: A person with heat stroke will be confused, have a bad headache, nausea and a very elevated temperature - above 105.8 F. They might have seizures or lose consciousness. "Their brain is frying," said Norris. "Get them out of the heat, start cooling them immediately and get them to a hospital as soon as possible."
  • Heat exhaustion: Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, sweating and a normal or slight increase in body temperature. A person experiencing heat exhaustion might be tired but their mental status will otherwise be normal. Hospitalization is not necessary in these cases, but it's still important to cool off.
  • Heat cramps: These are typically leg cramps that arise while exercising in the heat. Treatment is the same as for heat exhaustion, said Norris, with the addition of massage to release the cramp.

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