Doctors worried about heat health impacts as Salt Lake hits record

This week's heat wave has Utah doctors worried about health impacts, especially for kids and those with lung conditions — including those brought on by past COVID-19 infections.

Heat-related illnesses can be "catastrophic" during long-running heat waves, as Europe has recently experienced, said Dr. Adam Balls, an emergency medicine specialist at Intermountain Medical Center

"And death can even result from that, so it's really about banding together as a community to make sure that we're caring for each other, we're caring for ourselves. As parents, you're caring for your children," Balls said.

On Monday afternoon, Salt Lake City hit a record 102 degrees — the highest for that date since 1974, according to the National Weather Service.

Balls said doctors in Utah have seen a recent uptick in cases of heat illness.

Young children and older adults tend to be more susceptible to illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, he said. Younger kids are unable to keep themselves hydrated, Balls said, and adults need to encourage them to drink water often. Parents with kids in soccer or other summer sports should make sure their coaches are giving them regular hydration breaks.

Kids are also more at risk due to a combination of heat illness and gastrointestinal illness that's currently circulating in the community, Balls said.

"The heat on top of those illnesses can just compound the effects of being sick, so it's important for parents to just keep an eye out on their children over these next few days; and if they are outside for a prolonged period of time, limiting the outside exposure, making sure they have access to water and they're getting back inside to kind of allow their bodies to cool down," he said.

Parents should always ensure they do not leave a child in their car while running into a store, Balls said.

If kids appear lethargic, don't want to drink water, and are sleeping longer periods than usual, they might need medical care, he added.

King Crispin cools off in the splash pad at Liberty Park during a heat wave in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.
King Crispin cools off in the splash pad at Liberty Park during a heat wave in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Dr. Denitza Blagev, a pulmonologist at Intermountain Medical Center, said those with lung disease or illnesses should pay special attention to any heat-related symptoms this week. That includes some with "long COVID" respiratory symptoms they didn't have before the pandemic, she said.

As with other severe lung illnesses, those with long-term coronavirus symptoms will be more susceptible to breathing problems or coughing from the heat and ozone, which irritates the airways and can increase inflammation, Blagev said.

Often if people experience mild symptoms and do something about it early on, "then that mild symptom can really bounce back quickly," Blagev said.

"If people really push themselves because they feel like, 'I just am going to finish this thing that I started,' and don't pay attention to those early warning signs, then they can get in trouble, and it can take a lot longer, it can take a lot more medical care to recover from that," she said.

Charlotte Evans and Bart Evans sell popsicles during a heat wave in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.
Charlotte Evans and Bart Evans sell popsicles during a heat wave in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Those with lung diseases should try to be active in the early mornings or evenings instead of during the heat of the day.

"If you are getting sick and you feel like you cannot breathe, really take it seriously," Blagev said.

She also urged them to take their regular medications.

"So if you have asthma, take your regular inhalers and medications to ensure that you have good control and have a little bit more reserve. If you are experiencing problems with breathing, please contact your doctor, and if you really can't breathe, seeking medical care in the emergency department would be appropriate," Blagev said.

Balls encouraged residents to check on their neighbors who might be at risk of heat-related illnesses.

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"While you may be OK, perhaps your neighbor who is more advanced age or doesn't have someone checking on them frequently, it will be important for you to check on them and make sure their needs are met and they have the hydration that they need — and the temperature of the place where they're living is adequate, that their air conditioner hasn't broken down and they're not trying to survive through very high temperatures in their apartment or their home," Balls said.

If you plan on going a hike, Balls said doctors recommend avoiding extended, prolonged hikes in the heat of the day "because that's going to put you in a situation where you may be otherwise healthy, and you may just have a bad day where your body's more prone to illness." Those who plan to recreate shouldn't just hydrate before an activity — it's more important to continue drinking water while doing the activity.

And hydration is important, even while swimming, Balls said. While in the water, it can be easy to forget that you also need to drink water.

Symptoms of heat-related illness include muscle cramps and increased fatigue, the doctor noted. If cramps last more than an hour and do not respond to hydration attempts, or if you are altered, confused, or fainting, those are signs you are experiencing a more serious heat-related illness and should seek medical care.

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