WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Heat related illnesses are a clear and present danger for hikers, outdoor adventurers, concert goers, laborers, runners, and even seniors. Heat illness is a continuum, and if ignored, it can rapidly progress to life-threatening situations.
Many heat related trips to the hospital result from a lack of situational awareness coupled with a lack of understanding of dehydration.
The sultry heat of summer is upon us. Here’s what you may want to know to stay safe while enjoying the parks, trails, waterways and beaches in and around Oakland County.
Dr. Elizabeth Van Der Aue, an emergency medicine specialist mainly at McLaren Clarkston ER in Oakland County and outdoor adventurer, emphasizes awareness and prevention to keep heat related illnesses at bay. “Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink water”, she said. “Avoid working outside during extremely hot days, wear loose, light weight clothing, cover your head, wear sunglasses, try to stay in the shade and avoid over exertion, especially if not acclimatized to heat.”
Dr. Van Der Aue added the importance of listening to what your body is trying to say, “A weak rapid pulse, dizziness, faintness, muscle cramps, nausea and headache may all be symptoms of the progression of heat illnesses.”
Dr. Van Der Aue’s comments reminded me of a young woman I encountered while hiking across sunbaked sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. She wore attire unsuitable for hiking, had no hat or sun protection. She was walking barefoot across searing hot sand dunes in the heat of the day. She stated that she was “only” going to go five miles; but the most dangerous part was that she carried no water. I usually do not share water with strangers I encounter on trails, or give unsolicited advice; however this time I did both, because she was heading into serious trouble.
Arches National Park in Utah is proactive and warns hikers about dehydration with eye-catching graphics. A few years back I attended a Wilderness Medical Society conference near Arches and then went hiking through that spectacular, yet unforgiving Utah landscape. A trailhead poster advised hikers of dehydration danger with a drawing of a vulture perched on a tombstone engraved with the words, “Here lies Peter. He drank only one liter.” Why the warnings? The largest number of preventable medical emergencies at Arches National Park is from dehydration.
The fact of the matter is clear, dehydration is extremely serious as Dr. Van Der Aue stated, “One must hydrate before feeling thirsty.” Many species of wildlife and plants are well-adapted to life with little moisture, humans are not. We can develop serious symptoms after losing only about 2% of our body’s water, and total collapse around 7%. We easily lose about one liter of fluid per hour with activity, extreme heat and humidity can raise that amount rapidly to three liters in one hour.
Sports drinks are excellent to help maintain electrolyte balance. Alcohol is not. Gulping down large volumes of plain water to stay hydrated can be dangerous and cause hyponatremia, a very dangerous situation that is sometimes referred to as water intoxication that has caused the death of long distance runners and other healthy, active people in hot environments.
The three most common causes of all heat illness are excessive dehydration from sweating coupled with the related salt loss to the extent where sweating mechanisms no longer function. Working in a high humidity environment where sweat cannot evaporate, and as a result the body will not cool. Failure to know and act on the early warning signs of heat related illnesses such as dark urine, heavy sweating or dry skin. Wilderness Medical Professionals know that death can result in just twenty minutes once our natural cooling/sweating mechanisms fail and core temperatures soar.
At the first sign of any heat illness symptoms, stop all activity, move to a cooler place, sip water and rest. If symptoms do not improve quickly seek immediate emergency medical attention.
Whether you are backpacking solo across a harsh desert landscape, or just enjoying the wilder side of Oakland County with friends, stay healthy, hike happy, practice situational awareness and stay hydrated.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. He is a Contingent Paramedic for McLaren Emergency Department and an active member of the Wilderness Medical Society.