The knock on the door in the late afternoon wasn’t a surprise. Nor was the woman in her 70’s who was dizzy, a little disoriented, and sweating. Our Headquarters doubles as a first aid station for beach patrons, so its not unusual for people to show up with all kinds of medical emergencies including heat exhaustion. In this particular case, after taking her vitals and getting some medical history as well as an inventory of what she’d eaten, drank, and been doing for the day, we decided to rehydrate her and monitor her to see if she improved. After an hour or so she and her family left with a reminder to seek quick medical attention if the symptoms returned.
We are in some weird weather patterns fluctuating between storms and heat waves. Although in Galveston the actual temperature isn’t really that high, the real thing that worries us is the heat index, which is a combination of relative humidity and air temperature. When the relative humidity is over 60% it hampers with sweat evaporation and hinders your body’s ability to cool itself. Since in Galveston the humidity is pretty much always over 60% heat related illnesses are an ever-present danger in the summer.
Heat exhaustion is the first stage of heat related illness and is usually accompanied by some type of dehydration. We see heat exhaustion often on the beach in late summer. Many people spend the whole day in the heat and sun and often aren’t used to those conditions. Sometimes people who are outside regularly forget to hydrate or drink beverages that hasten dehydration. Generally, people will be confused, nauseous, dizzy, lightheaded, tired, have headaches or cramps, have pale or clammy skin, sweat profusely, and/or have a rapid heartbeat.
Normally, as was the case for this woman, this is enough, and we are able to treat at the scene and release them with a warning to take it easy for the next few hours or even days. This would be one example of the roughly 1,800 calls we’re able to filter for EMS annually. But if these measures don’t show improvement within a few minutes, we call for EMS because heat exhaustion can progress rapidly to heat stroke. Heat stroke is a critical life-threatening situation, so we want to avoid it if at all possible.
An important, but not well known, issue that affects our guards and people that are on the beach all the time is that of cumulative dehydration. New lifeguards often find that on the second week of work they are dizzy when they stand up or have stomach issues. They don’t feel thirsty so there’s no clue that they have become more and more dehydrated. Until they learn that they need to drink close to two gallons of water a day even if they’re not thirsty it will continue and worsen.
Living where we do in Galveston County it’s important that we are consciously aware of the effects and dangers of heat and sun and takes steps to mitigate them.
picture courtesy of news.okstate.edu