Gardening: Know the symptoms of heat stress and heat stroke

Eileen Ward
Staying hydrated is key to staying healthy during the summer months. With lack of drinking water, a person can become dehydrated and develop hyponatremia, a deficiency of sodium in the blood. People can become a heat casualty and suffer from heat cramps, exhaustion and stroke. Studies recommend drinking at least a half-gallon of water per day.

Whew! Summer temperatures are here. Just walking from the house to the car is grueling. If your job involves work in that grueling environment for eight to 12 hours, every day it can become dangerous enough to kill you.

Outdoor workers and players should be aware and conscious of the people who work or play with them and watch for signs of distress or illness. Encourage those who work for or with you to sit in the shade and drink cool water as needed. False bravado or the desire to impress the boss, have no place in these temperatures and should be discouraged.

If you don’t have to work outdoors, yet choose to exercise or do some of your own yard work, be sure to stay hydrated and try to work or play during the early morning or late afternoon hours when it is a little cooler.

Following are excerpts from the Workmen’s Compensation workplace safety publications. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of heat stress and heat stroke so you can take appropriate action immediately if you suspect either in yourself or someone you are with. It could save a life. Share these with anyone you think would benefit from this knowledge.

The human body likes to maintain a constant internal temperature and so must rid itself of excessive heat. It does this through blood circulation at the outer layers of the skin and releasing fluid onto the skin through the sweat glands. When temperatures are warmer, the skin sweating is the only way for the body to maintain a constant body temperature. This only works if the sweat is removed from the skin by evaporation. When humidity is high, the evaporation of sweat is decreased, causing body temperatures to rise significantly.

Humans can acclimate to heat by gradual exposure to a hot environment. This process can take 5 to 7 days. Heat related illnesses are more likely to happen to people who have not gradually acclimated to hot temperatures. Accidents are more likely in hot environments due to sweaty palms, dizziness or fogging of safety glasses. Mental confusion, tiredness and irritability are signs of overheating. This can result in poor judgement and unsafe practices.

Too much exposure to heat can cause a variety of problems and illnesses. Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that can occur when doing hard physical labor in a hot environment. Fainting can happen when standing in one position for an extended period of time in the heat. Moving around, rather than standing still can help prevent this. Heat rash occurs when sweat does not evaporate from the skin. Sweat ducts become clogged, resulting in a rash. Heat rash could result in an infection. Take frequent breaks in a cool place during the day and bathe and dry the skin as often as possible to help prevent heat rash.

Heat exhaustion is more serious and is caused by the loss of large amounts of fluid by sweating. This can include loss of salt as well. Signs and symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, mood changes (confused or irritable), feeling sick to stomach, vomiting, decreased or dark colored urine, lightheaded or fainting, pale clammy skin. Treat victims of heat exhaustion by moving the person to a cool, shady area, provide cool water to drink, cool the person by fanning them, cool the skin with a wet cloth, lay the victim on their back and raise legs six to eight inches if they are dizzy, lay the victim on their side if nausea occurs, loosen and remove heavy clothing and stay with the victim.

Call for emergency help if they do not feel better in a few minutes. If heat exhaustion is not treated, it may advance to heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most serious heat related illness. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature regulating system fails and sweating fails or is not adequate to remove the body’s excess heat. Signs of heat stroke are dry, pale skin (no sweating), hot red skin, mood changes (irritable, confused), seizures or fits and collapse and unconsciousness.

Prompt first aid for someone suffering heat stroke can mean life and death and should include the same first aid as heat exhaustion plus call for emergency help, lay the person on their back unless unconscious, remove objects close by if person is having a seizure, provide cool water to drink if conscious and place ice under arm pits and in the groin area.

People are at increased risk for heat related illnesses when they are dehydrated, fatigued, have infrequent exposure to hot temperatures and high humidity, are over the age of 40, are in poor physical condition or overweight, use certain medications (antihistamines, diuretics and some tranquilizers), have had prior heat related illnesses, use drugs or alcohol within the past 24 hours, have heat rash or sunburn or wear restrictive clothing or too much clothing.

People and employers can protect themselves and employees by following these recommendations. Train all employees on the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses and how to respond. Schedule the hardest work during the coolest part of the day. Encourage the buddy system so help is close by if needed. Provide plenty of cool water and encourage drinking one cup every 15 to 20 minutes. Encourage wearing light colored, loose fitting breathable (cotton) clothing. Provide frequent short breaks in cool shaded areas. Encourage employees to avoid eating large meals or consuming caffeine and alcoholic beverages before and during work in hot environments. Use fans or air conditioning. Provide tools and equipment that help reduce physical demands on employees.

Be aware and alert to those around you. If your partner is normally friendly and suddenly becomes angry and verbally aggressive it could be the first sign of heat exhaustion. Point this out and make them take a break. It is really a dangerous work and play environment in Florida during the summer months.

More:Gardening: Your lawn and the summer rains

Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at or 239-394-1413.