Donya Currie is the editor of The Free Lance-Star's Healthy Life section and Healthy Life Virginia newsletter.

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Stay safe in scorching heat

WEATHER: Check the latest forecast.

I don’t remember worrying about the heat when I was a kid. But I do remember feeling an odd combination of sweaty and chilled a few times after running around sports fields on hot, humid days.  Chills, I now know, can be a sign of heat exhaustion.

During heat waves like the one we’re experiencing now, kids and grownups need to be vigilant about keeping cool, staying hydrated and not ignoring signs that the heat is making them sick. Here’s a primer on heat sicknesses:

There are three kinds of illness caused by heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mildest form is heat cramps, followed by heat exhaustion and then heat stroke, which is potentially life-threatening.

Heat cramps are what you think: Muscle cramps caused by the heat. Along with cramps, symptoms include heavy sweating, fatigue and thirst. At this stage, you should stop what you’re doing, move to a cooler spot and drink lots of cold fluids. Sports drinks are helpful, the Mayo Clinic says on its website.

The next stage of heat sickness is heat exhaustion. Symptoms include:

  • cool, moist skin with goose bumps
  • heavy sweating
  • feeling faint or dizzy
  • fatigue
  • a weak, rapid pulse
  • muscle cramps
  • nausea
  • a headache
  • low blood pressure when standing.
Hyperventilation and irritability can be other signs of heat exhaustion, says As a parent, I know irritability is often a key sign that a child isn’t feeling well.

If you experience signs of heat exhaustion,  it’s critically important to stop all activity, get to a cool and shady spot, and drink cold water or sports drinks. If symptoms don’t ease up after about an hour, or if they worsen, or if your temperature reaches 104 degrees, seek medical care. If heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke, you need to get to a doctor right away; call 911.

Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness. According to the Mayo Clinic and the CDC, symptoms include:

  • red, hot, dry skin — and no sweating
  • confusion
  • difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • throbbing headache
  • muscle problems — cramps at first, followed by muscle weakness
  • unconsciousness
  • rapid, strong pulse

If you see someone suffering heat stroke, call 911 and then:

  • Get the person to a cool, shady spot
  • Cool the person down. Good options include placing ice packs on the neck and groin; spraying cool water on the person; using a fan.
What can you do to prevent heat sickness? Stay hydrated, but not by drinking alcohol; it dehydrates you. Try to stay out of the mid-day heat. Avoid strenuous activity in severe heat.

Know your risks: Young children and people over 65 have a harder time regulating their body temperature, so the heat can hit them hardest. Certain medications — including beta blockers, diuretics and stimulants — also can increase the risk of heat sickness. So can some health conditions, including heart and lung diseases and being overweight.

The heat wave we’re experiencing came on suddenly; earlier this week, I felt bad for making my kids attend swim practice while I sat poolside wearing a jacket. As I write this, I’m wondering how hard it will be to keep them cool during their meet Wednesday night, when the heat index is supposed to top 100 degrees, and they’ll spend most of their time out of the water, waiting their turn to swim. It might be a Gatorade kind of night…

To learn more about heat sicknesses, visit To see an interesting graphic from The Washington Post on how our bodies acclimate to the heat, click here.