July 28, 2011
By Nicholas Iovino
A relentless wave of heat and humidity, which caused more than 30 deaths as it moseyed its way through the Midwest and Northeast of the country last week, finally broke for North Shore residents over the weekend.
Temperatures dipped nearly 20 degrees between Friday, July 22, and Sunday, July 24. But the summer isn’t over yet, and it’s imperative that people recognize heat-related illness symptoms and how to prevent such ailments from occurring for the remainder of the summer, say experts.
Despite the break in high temperatures, Hallmark Health Hospitals in Medford and Melrose reported seeing about 15 more patients than usual suffering from dehydration and heat related illnesses last weekend.
“There are all different stages of a response for people who are having a bad reaction to the heat,” said Steven Sbardella, MD, chairman of emergency medicine for Hallmark Health System, which includes Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. “They’re almost all related to some degree of dehydration.”
Sbardella said symptoms can range from vague indicators like nausea, headaches, light-headedness and vomiting to the far extreme of unresponsiveness, comas and, at worst, death.
Seniors are the highest at-risk group for heat-related illnesses. Sbardella said the increased risk often results because many elderly people take certain medications that can make the body more susceptible to heat and dehydration. A lack of awareness or sensitivity to the minor symptoms that would typically trigger most people to address the situation also adds to the increased risk for seniors.
Sbardella recommends older citizens move slower, stay cool and drink a lot more than they’re used to when dealing with extreme heat. Taking breaks and putting off projects is sometimes necessary to ensure safety in sweltering conditions.
“If you’re feeling the effects of the heat, then you’re already behind the eight-ball,” Sbardella said. “You’ve got to pretty much call it a day.”
Another class of patients Sbardella often sees in the Emergency Department on hot days consists of younger people overexerting themselves in the heat and not properly hydrating.
“The ideal situation is if you know you’re going to go outside on a day like today, you start hydrating the day before,” Sbardella said.
In order to beat the heat, the doctor suggests multiplying the amount you would usually drink by 1.5 and avoiding diuretics like coffee and alcohol. Getting to a cool place is also crucial because the body won’t get ride of heat unless the temperature outside is cooler than one’s own body temperature.
“If you start to feel the effects, stop, slow down, and get yourself to a cool place,” Sbardella warned.
If the effects of heat and dehydration persist more than several hours, the doctor insists people come to the Emergency Room where patients can be rapidly rehydrated intravenously.