With temperatures hovering just at or below the triple digit mark - nearly five degrees above the July average for West Texas, the coming week promises to be the hottest to date in the region, with little promise of rain, or even cloudy skies, within at least the next week to ten days. While that comes as no surprise to anyone who calls the area home during mid-summer, it does call for a renewed vigilance on behalf of those who are most vulnerable among us. Put simply, heat stroke occurs when the body's ability to rid itself of heat is exceeded by the heat that it is generating, making heat related illness among the most preventable, with proper precautions.
More than 6,000 people will be admitted to emergency rooms across the country after suffering an illness related to overheating - the majority of them male, and usually as a result of sports related activities. Not surprisingly, more than a third of them will be the most active among us, teenaged boys, according to the Center For Disease Control (CDC). Heat illnesses have been recognized as a leading cause of death and disability among high school and college athletes, many of them currently engaged in preparation for the new school season. Those numbers can be expected to be heavily weighted toward the south and southwest. Interestingly, golfers are nearly twice as likely to be admitted to ER's as football players and runners, due to longer periods of time spent in the sun without adequate hydration.
Among the symptoms of heat illness are heat rash, muscle cramping, heavy sweating, nausea and vomiting, high body temperature, weakness, and fainting. Without immediate emergency treatment, severe heat illness can cause organ failure, brain damage, and even death.
While those numbers can be lowered among the young with some common sense measures that include frequent periods of rest during work or play, avoiding over-exposure to long periods of sunlight, and consuming large amounts of liquids, the effects of overheating by the most vulnerable among us - the very old and the very young - requires an added degree of vigilance, particularly among close relatives, neighbors, and caretakers.
Elderly people are most prone to heat stress because their bodies may not adjust well to sudden temperature change, or long periods of extreme heat. They are also more likely to have a chronic medical condition and be taking medication that may interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature. Those who know elderly citizens who live alone should take extra care to make sure they avoid extended periods of sun exposure on hot days, drink plenty of fluids, limit physical activity, and stay in cool, well-ventilated areas. Frequent sponge baths can be helpful for those who do not have air conditioned homes.
The same precautions should be taken for others who also should be considered at greater risk - children under the age of four, who are typically very active and susceptible to dehydration - homeless people, outdoor workers, and people who are overweight.
Pets are not immune to the effects of extreme heat. Animals, like children, should never be left in cars, where temperatures can soar to 120 degrees-plus in a very short period of time. Pets respond differently to heat than humans do. Dogs sweat primarily through their feet, making fans less effective in cooling them off.
Some dog owners assume that furrier dogs can generally benefit from a visit to the dog groomers for their summer haircuts, but It is a common misconception. While some smaller breeds can benefit, others have coats that actually help to insulate them from heat. Dog owners should consult a veterinarian or professional groomer.
Dogs walks should be largely restricted to the cooler times of the day, particularly in developed areas where the concrete and asphalt only intensifies the heat. As a general rule, if a dog owner presses his palm to the sidewalk and can't keep it there for more than 30 seconds, it is likely that the surface is also too hot for the pads on a dog's paws.