Summer is (almost) here and that requires some extra care when hiking, particularly on hot days (27 degrees and over). Besides being downright unpleasant, hitting the mountain whilst being unprepared may result in serious health implications: heatstroke and heat exhaustion can happen to anyone, regardless of your fitness level and regardless of whether you’re an experienced hiker or not. Besides not being fun, the former can be dangerous. Fatal, even. Fortunately, it can also be prevented.

What is heatstroke? (source: Health24)

Heatstroke occurs when the human body’s core temperature increases beyond 40 degrees Celsius. The condition can cause an individual to slip into a coma and suffer organ failure and can be fatal if not treated properly and promptly.  

The body generates heat but is usually able to dissipate this by radiation via the skin or through the evaporation of sweat on the skin.

In extremely hot or humid environments and in cases where people overexert themselves, the body may not be able to get rid of the heat fast enough and an individual may suffer hyperthermia which, is an abnormally elevated body temperature.

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are forms of hyperthermia. Sometimes an individual will suffer from heat exhaustion which progresses to heatstroke, while other individuals may develop heatstroke rapidly and without warning.

To prevent heatstroke and heat exhaustion:

  • Avoid strenuous physical activity and exposure to the sun in the middle of the day
  • Stay hydrated by drinking sufficient fluids such as water and sports drinks. Do not overdo your drinking as it is also possible to over-hydrate, which will flush out electrolytes from your system. 
  • Avoid drinks like alcohol, fizzy colas, tea and coffee, which dehydrate you more.
  • Wear wrap-around UV protective sunglasses and a wide brimmed sun hat.
  • Use a good sunscreen with a high factor (SPF30+). 
  • Keep babies and children off the mountain in the middle of a hot summer’s day
  • Check if your medication doesn’t affect sensitivity to heat.

Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke

  • nausea, headache, vomiting, fatigue, muscle cramps and aches and dizziness
  • high body temperature
  • dry flushed skin with an absence of sweating
  • rapid pulse
  • trouble breathing
  • bewilderment and confusion
  • unusual and sometimes aggressive behaviour
  • seizures and losing consciousness

What to do to get the patient’s body temperature down in order to prevent organ damage?

  • Move the individual out of the sun and into the shade.
  • Remove their clothing
  • Place them in a bathtub filled with cool or tepid water if they are conscious. Do not use very cold water as it can prevent heat escaping the body core. Be sure to keep a close eye on when a patient is placed in a bath to make sure he or she does not lose consciousness.
  • Or, hose them down with cool water from a garden hose
  • Or, wipe them down using a cool, wet cloth
  • Fan them to encourage evaporation on and cooling of the skin.
  • Give the patient drinking water or, even better, isotonic drinks containing electrolytes.

TIP: To make a quick dehydration drink (Oral Rehydration Salts / ORS): mix 8 level teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt into 5 cups (1 litre) of clean or previously boiled and cooled water.

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