AUSTIN (KXAN) – This summer is shaping up to be the hottest yet. With long stretches of triple-digit heat, record-breaking temperatures and the hottest consecutive months on record, it is no surprise many are experiencing the impacts this type of heat can have on your health.
It’s important to understand the consequences of extreme heat and to be on the lookout for the symptoms of heat-related illness. Meteorologist Nick Bannin spoke with emergency department physician Dr. Ryan McCorkle from St. David’s Medical Center to learn more about the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and whether or not people who just moved to Austin are more susceptible.
NICK BANNIN, KXAN NEWS: “Dr. Ryan McCorkle joins us, an emergency department physician at St. David’s Medical Center. I imagine it’s been a busy summer for you dealing with more heat-related illnesses.”
DR. RYAN McCORKLE, ST. DAVID’S MEDICAL CENTER: “That’s very true. We’ve had a lot more heat-related illnesses this summer than we’ve seen in the past with the high temperatures coming in earlier in the season than we normally see.”
NICK BANNIN: “What types of heat-related illnesses are they getting?”
DR. McCORKLE: “So, there’s a range. It starts with dehydration, which can lead to problems with the kidneys. That’s probably one of the most common reasons people get admitted to the hospital—their kidneys start to fail.
The ones that we get really concerned about are the people that go into heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion, we do some of those passive cooling measures, mist them, that kind of thing. Heat stroke is where they start to get altered mental status, get confused, stop sweating. And that’s where it becomes dangerous. The brain can start to swell. We do the chilled IV fluids; we put cooling packs in their armpits and groin and do the misters, as well, because we’ve got to get that core temperature down and get that brain swelling to decrease.”
NICK BANNIN: “Now, I imagine you can die of heatstroke if it’s not treated quickly?”
DR. McCORKLE: “That’s correct. We see that every year. We have a certain number of people who still live in the older homes that may not have central heat and air. Their air conditioner breaks. A lot of times, it’s the elderly.”
NICK BANNIN: “What’s happening in your body when you get heat exhaustion or heatstroke, and how are they the same, and how are they different?”
DR. McCORKLE: “So, heat exhaustion is where you start to sweat profusely, you turn bright red, and you get lightheaded. That’s where the kidney function can start to bump up from the dehydration that’s associated with that. And that’s where you’ve got to get that core temperature down, get out of the heat, get into the shade, find a place that has misters, because the progression of that if you don’t intervene at that heat exhaustion stage, is heat stroke. And that’s where you stopped sweating. They continue to be that bright beat red. But instead of that profuse sweat, they’re dry a bone, and they start to get confused, pass out, and that brain starts to swell. And that’s where we get into life-threatening emergencies.”
NICK BANNIN: “Do we build up a tolerance the more exposed to heat we are or the longer we’ve lived here in Central Texas?”
DR. McCORKLE: “You acclimatize to a level of comfort, but the temperature range that your body functions operate within does not change. So, if your core temperature gets above that certain range, you’re susceptible to heat-related injuries, no longer how long you’ve lived here. But you can be more comfortable in that range for a longer period of time before you start to really feel badly. None of us are acclimatized to these temperatures. I mean, I’m a lifelong Texan, born and grew up here. None of us are used to that happening in May and being sustained for this length of time.”
NICK BANNIN: “We hear of a lot of people moving to Central Texas from all over the country and other parts of the world too. Are those people the people you see more in the emergency room because they don’t recognize the symptoms, and they are not used to the heat?”
DR. McCORKLE: “Absolutely. People that are that are recent transplants here to the Central Texas area—they get uncomfortable and feel badly before the rest of us. We’re all susceptible to that when we reach that temperature. You know, we have the same disease process, but they feel badly a lot earlier because they’re not used to this.
I’m from here, but I went and trained in Buffalo, New York, for three years getting used to the cold there. Took a long time. But then coming back, it took me a lot of time to get back [to being] used to Central Texas, after being in upstate New York for three years. Those people that are coming from other climates, it does take some time.”
NICK BANNIN: “They feel a lot worse before those of us that have been here for a long time. Does that affect the hospital numbers too? Do you find more of those recent transplants? Are the ones that aren’t recognizing the symptoms or acting on them early enough [being admitted], or is it kind of a mixed blend?”
DR. McCORKLE: “I think we see a lot more people who come into the ER. We’re able to treat them with fluids, cool them down and let them go home. Those tend to be more than transplants because, like we said, they feel worse earlier in the process, and they ended up saying, ‘Something’s not right. I need to come into the ER and get checked out’ because they’re not used to the heat. We’re able to give those folks fluids, get a drink in, control their nausea, get them cooled down, and send them home. That’s a lot more your transplants. People that ended up with severe injuries in the hospital—it’s the same for all comers.”