Emergencies Due to Excessive Heat or Cold

Related Emergencies

The body's chemical activities take place in a limited temperature range. They cannot occur with the efficiency needed for life if the body temperature is too high or too low. Heat is generated as a result of the constant chemical processes within the body. A certain amount of this heat is required to maintain normal body temperature. Any heat that is not needed for temperature maintenance must be lost from the body or hyperthermia (HI-per-THUR-mi-ah), an abnormally high body temperature, will be created. If allowed to go unchecked, this will lead to death. Limiting physical exertion, drinking non-alcoholic fluids, and limiting exposure to excessive heat may help to prevent heat-related injuries.

There are three common emergencies brought about by exposure to excessive heat:

HEAT CRAMPS-brought about by long exposure to heat. The scene temperature does not have to be much greater than what would be considered "normal" environmental temperature. The individual perspires heavily, often drinking large quantities of water. As the sweating continues, salts are lost by the body, bringing on painful muscle cramps. Some  medical authorities question whether heat cramps are associated with salt loss.

Heat Cramps Symptoms and Signs:  Severe muscle cramps (usually in the legs and abdomen), exhaustion, sometimes dizziness or periods of faintness.

               Heat Cramps Emergency Care Procedure:

  • Move patient to a nearby cool place

  • Massage (with pressure) the "cramped" muscle to help ease discomfort

  • Apply warm, moist towels over cramped muscles for added relief

  • If cramps persist, or if more serious signs and symptoms develop, call for medical transport

HEAT EXHAUSTION-the typical heat exhaustion patient is a healthy individual who has been exposed to excessive heat while working or exercising. This is a mild form of shock brought about by fluid and salt loss. Blood will pool in the skin as the body attempts to rid itself of excess heat. Heat exhaustion is  more of a problem during the summer and reaches a peak during prolonged heat waves. The condition may develop into heat stroke.

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms and Signs:  rapid and shallow breath, weak pulse, cold and clammy skin, heavy perspiration, total body weakness, and dizziness that sometimes leads to unconsciousness

 Heat Exhaustion Emergency Care Procedures:

  • Call for medical assistance

  • Move the patient to a nearby cool place

  • Keep the patient at rest

  • Remove enough clothing to cool the patient without chilling him

  • Fan the patient's skin

  • Give the patient water. NEVER try to give fluids to an unconscious patient

  • Treat for shock, but do not cover to the point of overheating

HEAT STROKE-this is a TRUE EMERGENCY, brought about when a person's temperature-regulating mechanisms fail and his body cannot rid itself of excess heat. The problem is compounded when the patient fails to sweat in response to fluid and salt loss due to heat. Athletes, laborers, and others who exercise in hot environments are common victims.

 More cases of heat stroke are reported on hot, humid days. Even though heat stroke is commonly called "sun stroke," it can be caused by excessive heat other than from the sun. ALL cases of heat stroke are serious and require sending the patient to a medical facility as soon as possible.

Heat Stroke Symptoms and Signs:  deep breaths, then shallow breathing; rapid, strong pulse, then rapid weak pulse; dry hot skin; dilated pupils; loss of consciousness; seizures or muscular twitching may be seen.

Heat Stroke Emergency Care Procedures:

  • Call 911 for immediate medical assistance

  • Cool the patient -- in any manner -- rapidly. Move the patient out of the sun or away from the heat source. May put victim in water up to face (constantly monitor to prevent drowning). May wrap in wet towels or sheets and pour cold water over these. Body heat must be lowered rapidly or brain cells will die.

  • Treat for shock

  • Monitor breathing

Cold Related Emergencies

As noted, the body generates heat, trying to keep a core temperature of 98.6 degrees F. This involved a balance of the heat being generated, the heat lost, and the heat absorbed from the environment. If the environment is too cold, body heat can be lost faster than it can be generated. The body attempts to adjust be reducing respirations, perspiration, and circulation to the skin. Muscular activity will increase in the from of shivering to generate more heat. The rate at which foods that serve as fuel are burned within the body increases to produce more heat. At a certain point, enough heat will not be available to all parts of the body, leading to a general reduction or stopping of vital body functions. Hypothermia is a generalized cooling that may reduce the body temperature to a point at which the body can no longer generate enough heat to support life.

 The body can lose heat by conduction. This is a direct transfer of heat from the warm body into the cold environment. Heat also can be lost by convection as cool air passes over the body surface and carries away body heat. If a person's body or clothing becomes wet, water chill becomes a problem. Water conducts heat away from the body 240 times faster than still air. The effects of a cold environment also can be made worse by wind child. The more wind, the more heat loss by the body. Wind increases the effects of cold temperatures.

Patients with injuries or chronic illnesses will show the affects of cold much sooner than healthy persons. Those under the influence of alcohol or other substances tend to be affected more rapidly and more severely than the average person.

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