UAE

Summer in UAE: How to avoid heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke

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Drinking water and pouring it over the head and body helps the recovery from heat exhaustion. Image used for illustrative purpose only.
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Dubai: With the UAE recording its highest temperature so far this year after the official start of summer, doctors have warned residents to take precautions against heat-related illnesses. The National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) recorded 49.9°C in Mezaira, Abu Dhabi on Friday, a day after the summer solstice on June 20, its earliest date since 1796, marking the official start of summer.

With temperatures soaring near 50 degrees, doctors have highlighted the importance of taking precautions against various forms of heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. While heat cramps and heat exhaustion are comparatively less serious, heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness.

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Heat cramps

Dr Magdi Mohamed

Dr Magdi Mohamed, head of the department and consultant of Emergency Medicine at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi, explained that heat cramps are painful, involuntary muscle spasms occurring in the legs, arms, abdomen, or back due to strenuous activity or excessive sweating in high-heat conditions.

Symptoms include sudden, severe muscle pain, stiffness, and sometimes fatigue and weakness, often resulting from dehydration, loss of electrolytes through sweat, and inadequate fluid intake.

Prevention and management

“To prevent heat cramps you have to stay well-hydrated,” said Dr Mohamed. Consuming a diet rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which are essential for muscle function, is crucial. He advised drinking plenty of fluids, such as water and sports drinks with electrolytes, before, during, and after physical activities to maintain electrolyte balance. Wearing lightweight, loose-fitting clothing and taking regular breaks in shaded or cool areas can also reduce the risk.

“If heat cramps occur, stop all activity, rest in a cool place, stretch and gently massage the affected muscles, and drink electrolyte-rich fluids. Taking a cool shower can also help lower body temperature.”

Dr Mohamed emphasised monitoring weather forecasts and planning outdoor activities during cooler parts of the day, always ensuring access to adequate hydration.

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Heat exhaustion

Dr Nasrulla Jakhrani

Dr Nasrulla Jakhrani, a specialist in Internal Medicine at Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai, explained that heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats and cannot cool itself down, often due to physical activity in a hot, humid environment. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include muscle cramps, weak and rapid pulse, excessive sweating, nausea, headache, dizziness, and more severe symptoms like vomiting and low blood pressure.

Causes and prevention

“Prolonged exposure to high temperatures and humidity, inadequate fluid intake, and excessive physical exertion can lead to heat exhaustion,” said Dr Jakhrani. Infants, young children, and the elderly are more susceptible due to their reduced ability to regulate temperature. “To prevent heat exhaustion, wear loose, breathable clothing, take frequent breaks in the shade, and stay hydrated by drinking water or sports drinks regularly.”

Dr Jakhrani highlighted the importance of safety inside vehicles, as temperatures inside cars can rise quickly to dangerous levels. “Never leave children or pets in a parked car, even with the windows open,” he reminded.

Management

If symptoms of heat exhaustion appear, immediately get out of the heat and rest in an air-conditioned or shaded area. Drink plenty of fluids, remove tight clothing, take a cool shower, and use additional cooling methods like fans or ice towels. “If symptoms do not improve within 15 minutes, seek emergency medical assistance,” said Dr Jakhrani.

Heat stroke

Dr Shyam Raja Mohan

Dr Shyam Raja Mohan, a specialist in Internal Medicine at Prime Hospital, Dubai, defined heat stroke as an elevated core body temperature exceeding 40.5°C (105°F) with central nervous system dysfunction due to exposure to very hot temperatures.

There are two types: exertional heat stroke, affecting young, healthy individuals during exertion, and non-exertional heat stroke, affecting older individuals and children without exertion.

Symptoms include high heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, extreme tiredness, muscle pain, agitation, disorientation, and potentially serious complications such as organ damage, coma, and even death if not addressed immediately.

Precautions and management

Dr Mohan advised the following methods for precautions: Avoid strenuous activity and exposure in extremely hot environments, ensure proper hydration with water and electrolytes, and leave the area immediately if discomfort begins.

“It is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if heat stroke is suspected. Take the person away from the hot environment, give oral fluids during transport to the hospital if they can drink, have them lie down with legs elevated, and ensure immediate hospital admission. For management, they need to begin rapid cooling measures, correct electrolyte imbalances, and provide supportive care.”

“Heat exhaustion is milder than heat stroke, lacking nervous system damage. However, heat stroke is extremely serious and requires immediate medical attention,” pointed out Dr Mohan.

Other heat-related illnesses

Doctors also cautioned about other heat-related illnesses such as heat rash, heat syncope, and Rhabdomyolysis. Heat rash causes clusters of red bumps on the skin, often appearing on the neck, upper chest, and skin folds. Heat syncope involves fainting or dizziness. Rhabdomyolysis symptoms include muscle pain, dark urine, reduced urine output, and weakness.

First aid

Ajay Chaturvedi

Ajay Chaturvedi, a basic life support and first aid instructor in Dubai, said with temperatures already extremely high in June, people should avoid prolonged walking or heavy exercise in the hot sun.

“The UAE weather experts predict a hotter-than-average summer for 2024, making it crucial to know how to handle heat-related emergencies. It is better to carry water or electrolyte drinks, and drink fluids every 30 minutes,” he added.

He suggested offering water to labourers and delivery workers to help them combat the heat.

Talking about first aid, he said: “If someone is affected, move them to a cooler area and cool them immediately. Use active cooling techniques such as immersing the person in cold water or an ice bath, removing heavy clothing, and placing ice or cold wet towels on the head, neck, trunk, armpits, and groin. Use fans to circulate air around the person and never leave them alone, as the illness can rapidly worsen. In case of confusion, slurred speech, or unconsciousness, call the ambulance immediately and continue cooling the person with ice or cold water until help arrives.”

Heat emergencies in children

Chaturvedi pointed out that children are more vulnerable due to their limited ability to regulate body temperature.

“Children with heat stroke may present an altered mental status in which the child may be confused and have trouble communicating. Their skin will become very warm, even hot to the touch. Heavy sweating may be present, but the skin may be red and completely dry.”

Other symptoms include dizziness, slurred speech, seizures, severe headache, fast breathing and pulse, and unresponsiveness.

“If you recognise the signs of heat stroke, call 998 immediately and use the resources around you to aggressively cool down the child. If possible, immerse the child in water up to the neck. Or spray or pour water on the child and fan him or her. Place ice packs against the child’s groin, armpits and sides of the neck. Cover the child with a cold, wet sheet or towel if available until medical aid arrives.

“But prevention is better than cure. Parents need to ensure kids stay hydrated, wear lightweight, light-coloured clothing, take breaks in the shade, and avoid physical activity during extreme heat. Additionally, every parent and caregiver should be aware of the risk for heat-related illnesses or death when children [or pets] are left in vehicles. Check the back seat every time you exit the car, and call 999 if you see a child left alone in a vehicle,” added Chaturvedi.

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