News & Events

Backus offers tips to avoid heat-related illness

July 21, 2011

NORWICH – Although other kinds of weather might get more attention, heat is actually the most dangerous event of all, said Dr. Steven Powell, a pulmonologist on The William W. Backus Hospital Medical Staff.

In fact, the National Weather Service reports that heat kills more people per year – approximately 162 — than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined.

Dr. Powell said during a heat wave, it is important to recognize the warning signs of heat-related illness.  There are different types of illnesses, ranging from those that cause temporary discomfort to the often fatal condition known as heat stroke.

He said that those who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

For people with COPD whose airways are already inflamed and irritated, breathing hot air can worsen this, leading to bronchospasm. During a bronchospasm, the smooth muscle of the airways contract, which decreases the size of the airways. This makes it more difficult to get air into or out of the lungs, which also will increase shortness of breath and make it harder to breathe.

Dr. Powell said many elderly people are worried about having to go to the bathroom too much and therefore don’t keep as hydrated as they should during hot weather.

Deadly heat stroke can result. Heat stroke is a form of hyperthermia (abnormally elevated body temperature) that occurs when the body is not able to dissipate heat quickly enough to cool itself.  Populations most susceptible to heat stroke include infants, the elderly, athletes, and people working outdoors and exerting themselves in hot weather.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • High body temperature with hot, dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid pulse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Strange behavior, disorientation, confusion, hallucinations
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seizure or coma
  • Dizziness


Dr. Powell said a person experiencing heat stroke needs immediate medical attention.  While help is on the way, it is important to cool the victim in any way possible.  Get the victim to a shady area, remove clothing, apply cool water to the skin, fan the victim to promote sweating and evaporation, and have them drink water if they are conscious.

Dr. Powell said to avoid heat stroke and other heat related illnesses, people should:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid strenuous outdoor activity. If you have to be active outdoors, take frequent breaks.
  • Stay indoors with air-conditioning, but seek shade if you have to be outside.
  • Avoid alcohol, coffee and tea.
  • Wear hats
  • Wear light-colored clothing.


“Heat-related illnesses are much easier to prevent than treat,” Dr. Powell said.