Heat Hassles

Record Breaking Temperatures Increase Illness Risk

By Amy Morgan


It seems a distant memory since we’ve lived the words, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” Record heat moved in early this year. Since hibernating inside for the next three months is not feasible for most people, take precautions to prevent life threatening, heat-related illness.


You don’t have to be an athlete or even exercising intensely in the heat to be at risk for illness. Once the environment warms to a temperature close to the body’s, anyone can be affected – especially when the humidity reaches a level high enough to prevent the body from releasing heat through sweat evaporation, according to Emergency Medicine Physician Lee Chilton, M.D.


Dr. Chilton has spent 30 years practicing emergency medicine, the last four on the medical staff at Physicians Premier freestanding emergency room located west of Highway 281 on Highway 46 near the HEB Plus.


“Heat illness is common in Central and South Texas because the humidity is so high, people don’t realize they are accumulating heat even when they are not in direct sunlight and not necessarily active,” Dr. Chilton. The real-feel heat index, which takes into account humidity as well as the actual temperature, is a better gauge of when it’s safe to remain outside.


The most important thing you can do when the weather is hot to avoid spiraling into heat-related illness is to hydrate frequently – before you feel the need to drink.


“We don’t feel thirsty until our body fluids decrease by two-four % of body weight,” Dr. Chilton said. “That means a 150-pound person can lose a quart of water before they feel thirsty. It is easy to get behind.”

When someone is exercising, their body is breaking down proteins from their muscles, which are flushed through the kidneys. If the individual is dehydrated, the protein fragments get trapped and poison the kidneys – causing a condition called Rhabdomyolysis. Telltale signs include cramping, stiffness and swelling in affected muscles as the body tries to dilute the protein buildup. Dr. Chilton cautions people to take Rhabdomyolysis symptoms seriously and seek medical attention for IV fluids and lab tests to determine the extent of kidney damage.


Like physical burns, heat-related illness are graded on a continuum. Early heat exhaustion includes extreme fatigue, muscle cramps, profuse sweating and confusion. If things deteriorate to early heat stroke, the body will get so dehydrated the person stops sweating, Dr. Chilton said. A progression to full heat stroke includes neurologic symptoms like loss of consciousness, dropping blood pressure, and seizures.


You’ll know you are really in trouble and should head to the emergency room if you stop sweating and are unable to replace fluids due to nausea or vomiting, Dr. Chilton said. In the ER, medical professionals will administer IV fluids and cool the body with ice packs or place the patient under a wet sheet directly in front of a blowing fan. Dr. Chilton prefers the wet fabric/fan combo because it harnesses the property of evaporation to cool the body most rapidly. You can also use this process at home to reduce body heat if other symptoms remain manageable.


Don’t be a hero in the heat.  Watch the “feels like” temperature and plan exercise when things cool down. And drink fluids before, during and after a workout – even if you don’t feel thirsty. Your body needs it, and you’ll be preventing future problems.


Physicians Premier allows patients to access the care they need when they need it, saving time, money, alleviating concern and allowing for a healthier patient and community. Find them at

physicians premier.jpg