Battling the Heat: ER Doctors on Extreme Heat’s Toll on the Body:
Emergency room doctors in Arizona are seeing the deadly effects of extreme heat. Sunburns, organ failure, and even comatose patients are flooding Phoenix emergency rooms as temperatures reach 118 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat has disrupted the body’s natural cooling mechanisms, preventing sweating and temperature regulation.
Banner-University Medical Center emergency medicine physician Dr. Aneesh Narang has seen patients with 109-degree body temperatures. They arrive at the hospital unresponsive and “cooked” from the heat. The human body operates at 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, with a fever above 100.4 degrees. Over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, heatstroke is a risk.
Dr. Amy Axberg, an emergency medicine physician at John C. Lincoln Medical Center, describes heat-related illnesses using a patient with a 107-degree fever. This heatstroke requires immediate medical attention. Heatstrokes cause altered mental status, coma, and seizures, while heat exhaustion causes headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
Heat and inflammation can damage vital organs at heatstroke temperatures. Fast cooling saves lives. Emergency medical services place heat illness patients in an ice bath and monitor their body temperature on-site. After the patient’s temperature reaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they are quickly removed from the ice bath.
Due to the dangers of extreme heat, temperature reduction is essential. Long-term hyperthermia causes organ failure, making recovery unlikely. Since July and August are the region’s worst months, Dr. Narang worries that the heatwave may worsen.
Despite popular belief, heat-related illnesses can affect people of all ages. Young, active people are more prone to heat exhaustion, while the very young and elderly are more prone to heatstroke. Dr. Narang sees healthy, young patients who underestimate the dry heat and seek medical attention for headaches, nausea, or rapid heartbeats after outdoor activities. These patients may not believe heat exposure is the cause of their distress.
Medication can mask heat-related symptoms, making it harder for people to recognize danger. Psychiatric drugs, diuretics for high blood pressure, and beta blockers that slow the heart rate can inhibit sweating and temperature regulation. Doctors advise against stopping prescribed medications due to heat concerns.
Unlike during the COVID-19 pandemic, heat-related cases are not overwhelming emergency rooms. Medical professionals worry about weekend temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. Brian Hess, Abrazo Health’s ER medical director, warns that intoxicated or cognitively impaired people with substance abuse disorders or housing issues may not recognize the dangers of heat exposure.
If outdoors, stay hydrated to avoid heat-related illnesses. To avoid dehydration, drink water before morning coffee. When one feels thirsty, they are already dehydrated.
Early heatstroke treatment improves outcomes. Rapid cooling helps patients recover. Dr. Axberg describes a patient with a 107-degree body temperature who was unconscious but is now eating and drinking after rapid cooling. To reduce the health risks of extreme heat, quick response and effective cooling are essential.
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