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Published on July 24, 2012

MU Health Care Physicians Say Scorching Temperatures Call For Special Care

COLUMBIA, Mo. ― As searing heat continues to affect mid-Missouri with no signs of substantial relief in sight, University of Missouri Health Care physicians are urging residents to take precautions to protect themselves.

From dehydration to heat exhaustion to heat stroke, extremely high temperatures can lead to serious illness and risk of death. Heat-related illnesses can affect people quickly, often with only subtle warnings.

While heat-related illness can affect anyone, children and older adults are especially at risk, said Marc Borenstein, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at University Hospital. For elderly people who live with health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and lung disease, additional stress from heat can have deadly consequences. University Hospital emergency room staff has treated 15 people with heat-related illnesses since June 25.

Borenstein, who also serves as chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine in the MU School of Medicine, offers these tips for recognizing and treating heat-related illness:

• Dehydration signs: dry mouth, thirstiness, dry lips, fatigue, lightheadedness, and headache Treatment: Drink plenty of water. If you are sweating a lot, drink beverages that replace body salts and minerals lost through sweat. For adults, drink sports beverages. For young children, drink hydration fluids designed specifically for salt and mineral replacement in kids, such as Pedialyte.

• Heat exhaustion signs: dizziness, lightheadedness, headache, nausea and profuse sweating Treatment: Find an air-conditioned environment and rest. Take a cool bath and put on lightweight non-layered clothing.

• Heat stroke signs: extremely high body temperature of 104 or 105 degrees; hot, dry skin with no sweating; rapid pulse; confusion, changes in mental status Treatment: “This is a serious medical emergency,” Borenstein said. “When a person is so hot that he cannot drink enough fluids on his own, 911 must be called immediately for treatment at a hospital.”

In addition to children and the elderly, people who take medications for psychiatric conditions should take special care when dealing with extreme heat, Borenstein said. Psychiatric medications can make it difficult for the body to regulate its temperature, and high fever can develop from exposure to heat. Alcohol and drugs can impair judgment and perception, making it difficult to recognize the danger signs of heat-related illness.

Like older adults, children can be especially at risk. Kids lose heat through their skin much faster than adults, and hydration becomes even more important for them, said Thomas Selva, M.D., a pediatrician at University of Missouri Children’s Hospital.

“When playing outside, children usually don’t have to drink a sports beverage,” Selva said. “Water works very well for them.”

When the temperature is above 100 degrees, Selva recommends that older kids, about age 11 or older, should drink a quart of water every hour. He suggests parents monitor younger children’s thirst, sweating, urine output and urine color. A well-hydrated child usually has clear urine, while a dehydrated child has dark urine.

“This is especially important for kids playing sports,” Selva said. “Better hydration equals better athletic performance. Without good hydration, muscles and other body tissues can’t perform their best.”

“For smaller children, I typically recommend that if it is too uncomfortable for the parents, then it is probably not a good idea for the kids to be outside, either,” Selva said.

Selva also urges parents to acclimate their kids to the heat if they are planning to attend summer camps or other extended outdoor activities.

Selva and Borenstein offer these basic tips for everyone dealing with summer heat:

• Timing is everything. Consider exercising indoors. If that’s not an option, exercise or spend time outside during the morning or evening, when it’s cooler.

• Watch humidity levels. High humidity doesn’t just feel hotter. Humidity makes it hard for your body to cool itself because sweat won’t evaporate.

• If you are in a building without air conditioning, open the windows for ventilation and use fans. Visit cool public places, such as libraries and stores.

• Wear loose-fitting non-layered clothing to allow your body’s sweat to evaporate, and wear lighter-colored clothes, which absorb less heat.

• When outdoors, avoid direct sunlight, and stay in shade as much as possible.

• Stay well hydrated.

• Take a cool bath, but don’t make it too cold. Room-temperature water will be cold enough to cool you when you are hot.

• Mist yourself with water, and combine this with a fan for more cooling effect.

For more information on heat-related issues, please visit