NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Summer is fast approaching, and with it many opportunities for Nellis Air Force Base service members to enjoy the sunshine.
Some Airmen are keenly aware of how hot it gets here at Nellis working outside every day, some are not. Being stationed here in Las Vegas presents service members with many opportunities to take advantage of the weather and the local attractions that are built around days of endless sunshine. However, it also presents an entirely different set of dangers to their health and safety.
There are many ways to fall victim to the desert climate. Service members often work outside on the flightline in 110 degree temperatures. There are exercises that take place in the desert where there is no air conditioning or a ready supply of water. There are the physical fitness assessments service members run on a track outside. Off-duty, there are hikes to take, rocks to climb, sports to play outside and pools on the strip among many other outdoor activities.
Though it isn’t quite summer yet, the days of triple-digit temperatures are here and the increased risk of heat injuries along with them.
“There is an increased risk here because of the dry heat,” said Dale Williams, a civilian paramedic working for the 99th Medical Group emergency room.
There are several different types of heat related injuries. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, sunburns and surfaces that are heated by the sun during the day all pose a significant threat.
Dehydration is one of the more common injuries, Williams said. In the heat, it happens when people don’t drink enough fluids to replenish what their bodies lose in the form of sweat trying to keep cool. Some of its symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness and fainting.
“When someone starts getting dehydrated take them out of the sun and get them plenty of water,” Williams said.
Dehydration can also lead to more serious heat related injuries. Heat exhaustion is cause by activity in a hot environment, which can lead to the body being unable to cool itself effectively; its symptoms include weakness, nausea, cramps, and profuse sweating.
Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which can be fatal if not treated, said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Stephen M. Galvin 99th Medical Operations Squadron emergency services medical director. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature regulation system fails. A person suffering from heat stroke will have an elevated body temperature, often reaching 105-106 F, and will STOP sweating. They may have confusion, disorientation, and seizures which can progress to the loss of consciousness or coma and death. Heat stress’ affects include decreased cognitive function, decreased productivity, and decreased strength and can even cause impairment similar to drinking alcohol.
“One way to recognize it, you start to sweat really badly and then you get red, that’s heat exhaustion,” Williams said. “It will very quickly go to heat stroke. Once your body quits sweating you are in heat stroke. If its 110 [degrees] and you are not sweating you need to go to the emergency room.”
“We had a pilot come in,” Williams said. “They were doing an exercise where they dropped him in the desert and he had to walk around for an hour and then hold up and wait for them to come and find him. It was a simulated exercise but he ended up getting heat stroke. When they dropped him off he really started complaining of abdominal pain and he quit sweating and he came to us with a core temp of just under 105 degrees. It took us four days with him in the intensive care unit to get him back to normal. He was out there for an hour in the sun and it was 108 degrees that day.”
Sunburns are another common injury in Las Vegas. Sunburn is a first degree burn, Williams said. It’s very painful and there isn’t much you can do about it.
“If you get bad enough sunburn it can make you very weak and fatigued and physically sick,” said Capt. Lydia Nefedov, a registered nurse at the 99th Medical Group Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital emergency room .
The use of sun blocking agents will not prevent a person from suffering heat exhaustion or heat stroke, but will prevent sunburns. High potency sun blocking agents should be applied throughout the day to reduce the risk of sunburn, Galvin said. Wear loose light clothing which covers the exposed skin, sunglasses and a broad brimmed hat. It is also important to remember that sunscreens are broken down by heat, so leaving them in a vehicle can reduce their effect.
Another concern is how hot the surfaces outside can become.
“We have had children come in with second degree burns on the bottoms of their feet because they walked outside on the pavement in the middle of the day,” Nefedov said. “That’s a serious injury and requires being transported to a different hospital and being admitted for several weeks.”
It is terribly hot on the tarmac, Williams said. There have been many injuries where people have fallen on the asphalt and it is 130 or 140 degrees and they get immediate second or third degree burns. It is something you have to be very aware of.
“One time we had an [older] lady who fell and broke her hip in a parking lot and she laid there for an hour before anyone noticed,” Nefedov said. “She had second and third degree burns on one side of her body. She was also dehydrated from lying out in the sun for an hour.”
“I actually got second degree burns from touching my car,” said Maj. (Dr.) Kristin Silvia, flight commander and associate program director for the emergency medicine residency program at the Mike O’Callaghan federal hospital. “I rolled down the window and touched the side of my car and got second degree burns from it.”
The best defense against the possibility of heat related injury is to stay hydrated and to be aware.
“Always plan ahead if you plan on drinking [alcohol], which a lot of people do in[Las] Vegas and a lot of young people do, especially make sure you incorporate some fluids that are non-caffeinated, Nefedov said. “If you’re out all day not drinking, keeping yourself hydrated is the best combat for the summer heat. If you are at the pool go into the pool. Make sure you wear shoes on the hot pavement.”
This summer, stay safe on and off-duty by taking a few very simple precautions. The most important thing to do is to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. For more information on what to do to stay healthy and happy this summer, visit southernnevadahealthdistrict.org for local climate information and health advice.