Health & Safety

June 26, 2014

Heat illness a summer threat to the uninitiated

Senior Airman Jason Colbert
56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — For Airmen living in Arizona, being told that “the summer is hot here” is akin to being told “the water is wet.” It’s a no-brainer. But ask these same Airmen what injuries can come from the summer heat and many of them may shrug or give the “deer in the headlights” stare. With the 101 Days of Summer upon us, knowing how to be safe in the sun will help ensure a fun summer.

With the summer heat come easily preventable heat injuries.

“More accurately, they should be called ‘heat illnesses,’” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Cindy Harris, 56th Aerospace Medicine Squadron medical director and flight commander.

“Heat injuries run the spectrum from a simple rash all the way to the most severe, which is heat stroke,” she said. “It can be very difficult to tease out differences on this spectrum.”

The start of the spectrum is simple thirst. From there, symptoms can include stomach pains, cramps and dry mouth.

“The body needs to take in water, but one feels nauseated. It’s kind of a paradox,” Harris said. “Overall body fluids decrease because the body is trying to accommodate the heat. We don’t operate very well with the heat. Just like computer systems, we need to get rid of the heat, dissipate it. Part of the mechanism in doing that is sweat. So we use our body’s water resources through sweating. Sweating lowers the body’s water content. That will potentially cause an imbalance in electrolytes.”

After the body sends the initial signals of heat illness, more severe signals will be sent. One may have hot, dry skin or profuse sweating. One may begin to feel nauseated, dizzy and experience cramps. Sufferers may also experience hallucinations and have slurred speech as the body begins to enter the final stages of heat illness or heart stroke.

“Heat stroke is the body methodically shutting down things it doesn’t need to keep itself running,” Harris said. “One can have organ failure since it can’t accommodate the heat. The blood doesn’t do its part by carrying waste away from the body parts like it should, which can cause cramps and stomach issues, and the brain to not function appropriately.”

Working outside on the flightline isn’t the only way to suffer from heat illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working in any hot environment or using gear that traps body heat can also contribute to heat illnesses. Workers who are over 65, overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take certain medications all contribute to the risk of heat illnesses. Heat illness, while severe and potentially

fatal, is avoidable. The first step is to stay hydrated. Drink before getting thirsty. The next step is to remove the person suffering from the heat. Find a cool place to sit and drink water. Fanning also works, Harris said. Spraying water or mist while fanning will bring the body’s core temperature down.

Harris warns against rapidly cooling someone suffering from a heat illness. Doing so will cause the body to shiver, which will cause the body’s core temperature to rise.

The CDC also recommends gradually building up to heavy work during high heat periods and scheduling heavy work during the coolest parts of the day. Take more breaks in extreme heat and humidity in a cool or shaded area, if possible. They also recommend avoiding alcohol and drinks with large amounts of caffeine or sugar. And, like a good wingman, remember to keep an eye on coworkers displaying symptoms of heat illness.

So this summer, in the heat of the sun, take precautions to avoid heat injury or heat illness that can take Airmen out of the mission and keep them from enjoying the summer.




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(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Betty R. Chevalier)

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