Too much sun this summer has turned this month into a nightmare, but the worst is yet to come. With mercury hovering over 40 degrees Celsius in many parts of India and the humidity rising over the past week, people who spend time outdoors have been the worst hit.
Clinics across town are getting flooded with patients — mostly young and the elderly — with heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which, in extreme cases, can kill. “The number of patients suffering from heat-related illnesses peaked this week, and heat stroke is the first condition that should be considered while diagnosing symptoms of exhaustion, headache, fever, nausea and vomiting,” said Dr Suranjit Chatterjee, senior consultant, internal medicine at Indraprastha Apollo hospital.
In extremely hot weather, the heat overburdens the body’s heat regulatory mechanism. Under normal circumstances, the body cools itself through sweating, but under very hot weather conditions, it fails do so, resulting in the body temperature rising rapidly beyond normal.
Several factors affect the body’s ability to cool itself during severely hot weather, including humidity, which prevents sweat from evaporating quickly for the body to release heat faster. “Cases of heat-related illness are high during monsoons as well, when the humidity is higher and people don’t sweat,” said Dr A.K. Aggarwal, head of internal medicine at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
Apart from children and the elderly, the heat wave also affects the obese, alcoholics and those on medication for chronic illnesses. It’s best to avoid the sun during peak hours and also avoid overexertion as far as possible. Try and maintain a constant water intake, about a glass every hour, to avoid getting dehydrated. Do consult an expert before taking any medication.
The first sign of heat illnesses is heat cramps, which occur due to over-exertion, such as during exercising. These are minor cramps that are limited to the legs and the core body temperature of the person does not rise.
In such cases, salt and fluid replenishment helps the affected person get back into shape. “It happens because of excessive water and salt loss in the body and isn’t very serious. The patient can recover even while at home,” said Dr Chatterjee.
The second condition is that of heat exhaustion, which can rapidly
develop into a heat stroke. Profuse sweating in hot and humid weather can push up the body’s temperature to 40 degrees Celsius (the normal temperature is 37 degrees Celcius). “People with heat exhaustion should be given a cold sponge bath to bring their body temperature down and then give a rehydration solution at once, such as water with oral rehydration slats (ORS) or lemonade with salt and water,” said Dr Aggarwal.
The worst heat attack is heat stroke — also called sunstroke — which begins with headache, muscle tremors, nausea and vomiting and ends with collapse following the core body temperature shooting up beyond 40 degrees Celsius.
Heat stroke patients don’t sweat, as their regulatory body mechanism fails completely, which can lead to renal failure and coma. “These people are treated in the ICU and they aren’t in a conscious state and require extensive medical care, but this stage isn’t that common among people.” said Dr Aggarwal.