Published on 06/16/97

Summer's Finally Here -- and Can Be Deadly

In Georgia, summer rarely waits until summer to arrive. It's usually scorching long before June 21 announces the season's official start.

This year's spring stayed mild to the end, but it's almost gone now. Summer's coming on, and you can count on this: its intense heat can be deadly for the unwary.

"We're better prepared to handle intense heat in the South -- most housing has air-conditioning or at least fans for cooling. But many people are still at risk," said Connie Crawley, a food, nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

Intense heat leads to hyperthermia, with a range of symptoms including dizziness, rapid heartbeat, diarrhea, nausea, cramps, headache, intense weakness, breathing difficulty and mental changes. Another sign is an inability to sweat, which leads to a vicious cycle of worsening symptoms.

At the top of the at-risk list, Crawley said, are the elderly.

"As people get older, they aren't as sensitive to body changes," she said. "They tend to get into trouble faster and recognize it slower."

Drinking more fluids is the best way to fight the deadly dehydrating effect of high heat. But older people may even resist drinking more fluids, Crawley said, to avoid more frequent bathroom visits.

"Thirst lags behind the body's need for water," she said. "That's especially true for older people, who may not be as conscious of thirst cues as younger adults."

The very young are also at risk, she said, at least partly because they, too, aren't very aware of health-threatening changes around them.

"Infants and young children also have a high proportion of water to body weight," she said. "They need more fluids, but they aren't aware of it."

Both the elderly and the very young aren't as likely, or as able, to tell others of their needs. "So the people around them need to do proactive things that help prevent heat stress," Crawley said.

In general, she said, "use common sense." Find easy ways to lower at-risk people's exposure to heat and raise their intake of fluids.

Encourage them to drink water regularly. Plain, moderately cool water is best. Ice water isn't as well absorbed, and it can upset the stomach. But if people who need water resist drinking it, try making it more appealing by adding a little ice and maybe lemon juice for flavor.

"Some people prefer the taste of certain bottled waters, too. If they can afford it, that's fine," she said. "But most people can get used to the taste of tap water."

For kids, making Kool-Aid may help, "but cut down on the sugar," she said. "It's best to teach children to enjoy plain water."

Any nonalcoholic fluid will meet the body's needs, Crawley said. Alcohol dehydrates the body and can make a person even less aware of heat stress signals.

Caffeine can have the same dehydrating effect. "Coffee, tea and caffein-containing soft drinks probably aren't the best choices," she said.

Use commonsense approaches to reduce the heat's effect, too. Wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothes can help greatly. "The most breathable fabric you can wear is cotton," Crawley said.

Schedule your most active times, particularly outdoors, in the early morning or very late, just before dark. "People often think of noon as the hottest time," she said. "Actually, the temperature is usually highest in mid- to late afternoon."

If you don't have air-conditioning, baths and cold compresses can help reduce the heat. A fan helps but can give you a false sense of coolness, she said.

"You can't trust your senses when it comes to the body's need for water," she said. "Just know you need to drink fluids regularly when it's hot. And remember to watch out for others, especially the elderly and the very young."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.