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After Hurricane Laura, farmers work to get a generator connected at the bins holding part of Jordan Aguillard’s rice crop near Lake Charles, La.

Beware of heat-related illnesses after flooding and natural disasters

Follow these strategies for staying well while working in extreme heat.

More than 600 people in the U.S. die from extreme heat every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Due to Hurricane Laura, many residents and volunteers in Louisiana and Texas are busy cleaning up from the storm. It's important to remember to drink plenty of water, seek shade, and take breaks to prevent heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

In a recent AgriSafe webinar, Alexander Nguyen, a third-year occupational and environmental medicine resident at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, Texas, spoke on prevention measures to prevent heat-related illnesses.

"Following natural disasters, heat-related illnesses are prevalent due to people working outside to clean up after the disaster," Nguyen said. "It's important to take measures to prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

"When a hurricane occurs, homes and businesses might get flooded or have wind damage. Damage to infrastructure, roads, and power lines will be widespread. People might be spending more time outdoors in the sun to clean up the wreckage, and you might not have air conditioning from power outages."

Roads also might not be accessible, preventing emergency vehicles from easily getting to someone if an accident occurs.

Understanding heat stress factors

Heat illness is defined by the California Code of Regulations as a serious medical condition resulting from the body's inability to cope with the heat load.

"When we move around or lift heavy objects, the body has to get rid of that heat," Nguyen said. "Just like an overheated engine dies, if your body overheats, you can die. Your ideal body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. However, your body can technically get up to 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and, for short periods, to 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit and still be okay.

"You might ask, 'If my ideal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, why do I feel hot when the air around me is 90 degrees.' It's because the hot air around us makes our natural cooling system less efficient."

Heat-related illness symptoms

On a continuum from least serious to most serious, the most serious heat illness is a heat exacerbated heat stroke.

"Some heat-related illnesses are like heat edema, which is a swelling of the blood vessels, dilating, and attempting to dissipate the heat," Nguyen said. "Prickly heat is a heat rash. Dehydration is when your body is losing water faster than you can replenish it, and heat cramp happens from a loss of water and electrolytes."

Some factors that increase heat stress include not only the air temperature but also high humidity. Humidity makes the body less efficient at dissipating heat by preventing sweat from evaporating off the skin.

"How much you rehydrate, clothes thickness or color, and how much work you're doing can also contribute to heat stress," he said. "The more you use your muscles the more heat your body is generating. In comparison to heat exhaustion, heat stroke has to do more with the brain. Possible symptoms for heat stroke include confusion, seizures, or fainting."

Clinically, a heat stroke is defined as having a core body temperature over 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Another unusual thing about heat stroke is you stop sweating because you've become dangerously dehydrated," Nguyen said. "Your body cannot afford to lose any more water, so your inability to sweat is like burning off all the coolant in your engine.

"The idea is to never get to this point, of course, so we need to be aware of the step before heat stroke, which is heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion symptoms include dizziness, headaches, sweaty skin, fast heart rate, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and cramps."

Heat illness prevention strategies

Once the symptoms are recognized in yourself or anybody else, it's important to stop what you're doing, find some shade or a cool place, and get some water quickly before it progresses to a heat stroke.

"Find a cool place with shade, drink a bunch of water, find a fan to cool the air around you or, better yet, go inside to get some air conditioning if able, lay down, and call for help. Think water, rest, and shade," Nguyen said.

Hydration is key.

"Hydration is the first step to prevent heat illness," he said. "Unfortunately, the body doesn't recognize you're thirsty until you have already sweated out a bunch of your water and are becoming dehydrated."

It is recommended to drink water every 15 minutes, even if you're not thirsty. Ideally, about 5 to 7 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes is good, so you are drinking about a 16-ounce water bottle every hour.

"If you're working out in the heat, you need to drink at least one bottle of water every hour," Nguyen said. "If you are sweating a lot, you might need to replenish with some electrolytes, which will prevent your muscles from cramping. Powerade and Gatorade are usually too concentrated and filled with sugar and salts, so you want to water those down or drink them with a lot of melted ice."

Remember to also rest in the shade.

"You want to rest often in the shade to give your body a chance to recover and cool down a bit before you ramp back up and start working again," he said.

There is a process called climatization, which is how the body physically adapts to different environments.

"Your body's like a smart engine that adapts," Nguyen said. "If you're repeatedly exposed to a hot environment, your body learns to lessen the increase of body temperature. It will lessen your heart rate, and you start sweating sooner and sweating more. Eventually, you don't feel as uncomfortable in the heat as someone who hasn't adapted. In an emergency like this hurricane, you're ramping it up much quicker than usual to get the work done, so your body doesn't have time to climatize. Also, you can lose the heat adaption within three weeks if you don't continue to experience the same amount of heat.

"If you are not used to the heat, remember to take it slow at first, and also remember water, rest, and shade."

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