Safety first: prevention key in beating the summer heat

When participating in outdoor activities during the summer months – be it training or for fun – always be mindful of potential hazards brought about by soaring temperatures. Getting plenty of sleep, maintaining a well-balanced diet and being mindful of the time spent outdoors are all keys to reducing the risk of heat-related injuries.

Before jumping into any outdoor summer activities, health experts at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital recommend taking steps to prevent dehydration, exhaustion and other complications related to excessive heat exposure.

“Heat injuries could potentially result in fatality,” said Capt. Paul Ebohon, chief, Environmental Health, BACH. “We try and focus on prevention before we get to any symptoms, and first and foremost is acclimating your body.”

That means getting plenty of sleep, maintaining a well-balanced diet and being mindful of the time spent outdoors.

“Heat in the human body is cumulative,” said Daniel Rennaker, safety specialist, Fort Campbell Installation Safety Office. “If you spend a lot of time outside on Monday and make it through, even if you take Tuesday off and you’re out there again doing it on Wednesday you’re going to be more susceptible to that heat. You have to be aware of how much heat and stress you’re putting on the human body, and if you push those limits too far you can lead into a stroke or even die.”

Ebohon said easing the body into the heat is key in avoiding that stress, whether it’s from military training or an outdoor Family gathering. Recommended acclimatization requires approximately two weeks of progressive heat exposure with rest periods in between.

“For example, military personnel waking up for a 12- or 14-mile road march have to prepare their bodies for that event,” he said. “I’d want to do that in heats – maybe I’d start with 3 miles, then 6 miles and eventually get to where I need to be.”

While acclimating to the heat is important, it’s only the foundation. Proper hydration and sunscreen protection are other necessary steps in preventing heat injuries, and wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothing can further reduce the risk.

“If you’re going to be outside in the summer, you want to drink the proper amount of water throughout the day and not wait until you’re thirsty,” Ebohon said. “Sports drinks are an alternative to replace electrolytes in your body, but you don’t want to use them to replace water.”

The recommended amount of water consumption is no more than 1.5 quarts per hour and 12 quarts per day, Ebohon said. Overhydrating can lead to water intoxication and requires medical attention if the body’s sodium levels drop too low.

“Diet is important there as well, because a lot of times in the summer people want to lose weight and start counting calories,” he said. “You can end up not taking the adequate amount of salt into your body and heighten your risk for heat injuries, so if you want to lose weight properly you should talk to a nutritionist who can work with you on the right diet.”

Sunburn also can lead to heat injuries and increase the risk for skin cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, of at least 15 and reapplying it every two hours to guard against the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

“Those UV rays are a part of actual radiation coming from the sun,” Rennaker said. “When you have too much, the immune system in your skin, which is the body’s largest organ, is going to get poisoning from the effects of trying to fight off all that exposure.”

Ebohon said anyone exhibiting signs or symptoms of heat injury should immediately stop whatever activity he or she is involved in, move into the shade, loosen any tight clothing and drink sips of water while waiting for medical attention.

The common signs and symptoms of heat injury include muscle cramps, dizziness, headache, nausea, unsteady walk and fatigue. Symptoms that require emergency medical attention include high body temperature, vomiting, confusion, convulsions, weak and or rapid pulse and unconsciousness.

“You’ve got to focus on yourself and others and communicate clearly with someone else if you’re feeling like that,” Rennaker said. “Always use sunscreen and shade to your advantage and be sure to monitor at-risk individuals – children, babies, the elderly and those with health conditions. And remember that pets are affected just the same.”

Anyone planning to spend time outdoors should pay attention to the weather forecast and heat alerts to make sure conditions aren’t too harsh.

“The key measure is the heat index,” Ebohon said. “A lot of times when people want to go outside, they may see that it’s 70 degrees ... but they’re missing environmental conditions like cloud cover, the sun angle, wind speed and humidity. When you look at only the temperature, you’re missing important factors.”

BACH monitors the installation’s Wet Bulb Globe Temperature index, which combines those conditions, hourly 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Each heat category determined through the WBGT includes recommended work and rest cycles along with hydration requirements.

To receive the heat index, Soldiers and Families can call 270-798-HEAT (4328) during business hours, or contact Range Control at 270-798-3001 after hours. Information also is available on Fort Campbell’s website, https://home.army.mil/campbell/index.php/units-tenants/Tenants/weather-squadron. The recorded WBGT may not reflect conditions across the installation and should be used as a general guideline.

“The biggest thing is relaying the heat categories and having awareness of guidelines, whether that be through the city, Fort Campbell or the news,” Rennaker said. “If they’re saying it’s a hot day and you should really try to stay inside, they’re saying it for a reason.”