Deaths from heat stroke are not rare. Under dangerous conditions, the athlete or the fitness exerciser can suffer a range of heat illnesses, from heat cramps to possible death from heat stroke.
A fatal heat stroke story
A well-known case occurred in 2001, when Korey Stringer, a Minnesota Vikings football player, collapsed during practice at summer camp and died a preventable death. The temperature on the field was above 90 degrees and the humidity was very high. The heat index was 110 degrees F. He was wearing a helmet and pads and at 6 feet 4 inches weighed 335 pounds. The first day, he was removed from the field after complaining of exhaustion. A day later, he was at practice for two and a half hours. He vomited three times, then walked to an air-conditioned shelter but complained of weakness and dizziness and was breathing heavily. When he arrived at the emergency room, his body temperature was 108 degrees F. He was unconscious and later died.
The NFL has instituted safeguards since this incident. However, deaths have continued every year among student athletes in high schools, colleges and among the general public.
Precautions to take before working out in high heat and humidity
Anyone who plans to exercise in hot, humid weather must take precautions. Exercise itself can raise the body temperature, and the addition of high air temperature adds to it.
When our bodies heat up, we cool ourselves down by sweating. If we don't keep drinking water or other fluids, we get dehydrated, and sweating diminishes. If the body doesn't sweat, the core body temperature rises and this leads to heat injury.
Drink water before, during and after exercise. Take many rest periods. Take the time to adjust to a heat wave, increasing exercise by degrees over a period of time.
Factors that can provoke heat illnesses
- Environment – How high the temperature and humidity are (above 60 percent is excessive), whether there is a breeze and how strong the sun is are all factors that can impede perspiration.
- Wearing appropriate clothing is crucial. Dark colors absorb heat and should be avoided. Having student athletes in full football gear in hot summer training stifles perspiration and is dangerous.
- People in poor physical condition should avoid the high heat and humidity. Even those in the best shape have to gradually acclimatize to the weather conditions.
- High body fat is a risk factor for heat illness because it hinders body cooling.
- Anyone with a recent high fever should not exert themselves in the heat.
- Medications such as diuretics and stimulants decrease the ability to cool the body.
- Anyone with the sickle cell trait or disease should avoid activity in high heat due to the need for constant hydration.
Heat illnesses from mild to deadly and what to do
- Heat cramps are painful and can occur in the stomach or the muscles of the legs or arms. Activity should be stopped, the muscles involved gently stretched, and water or electrolyte solution drunk. If symptoms are severe, it should be treated as heat exhaustion (see below).
- Heat syncope (fainting) is caused when too much water and salt are lost. It is characterized by weakness and fatigue as well as fainting. This can happen after a race or even from standing too long. Anyone who faints needs medical attention. Getting the person to shade or an air-conditioned room is important. An unconscious person, however, should never be given anything to drink, but if able to drink, he or she should do so.
- Heat exhaustion is caused by loss of water and salt through perspiration. The amount of perspiration decreases and the body temperature rises and may reach 104 degrees F. Symptoms may include weakness, extreme thirst and headache, and the victim may become unconscious. Symptoms may also include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and muscle cramps. Electrolyte fluids are necessary because of the loss of salt and other minerals. Treatment includes getting the victim to a cool spot, either in the shade or in an air-conditioned room. Then they should be given fluids, cooled with fans or other items, and brought to a doctor for further examination or treatment. This is crucial if there is nausea or vomiting.
- The most severe and most dangerous heat injury is heat stroke. The core body temperature is above 104 degrees F. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, confusion, disorientation, seizures and unconsciousness. Coma may occur. It can happen suddenly or after heat syncope or heat exhaustion. This is a life-threatening situation. Emergency help must be called for immediately. If possible, the person should be immersed in cold water while waiting for the EMTs. Apply ice or ice packs to the armpits, neck and groin. Check the victim's temperature and keep trying to cool down the body temperature.