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In the law enforcement world, we deal with threats of all varieties and from a host of unlikely (or at least unexpected) sources. While we focus on all those threats and we take weeks of training on how to avoid them, counter them and mitigate them, we sometimes end up completely ignoring environmental factors that can cause us an equal or greater concern. This article focuses on heat related injuries or illnesses; or simply “being too hot.”

There are three well-known heat injuries that you can experience and two hydration-related concerns that are related to them. The three heat injuries are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The two hydration concerns are dehydration and hyponatremia. Let’s first take a

Heat Cramps: Heat cramps are the involuntary and sometimes painful spasming of muscles anywhere in your body. They occur most often during heavy exercise or prolonged muscle group use in hot environments. Many people who experience heat cramps don’t even realize that the cramps are heat related. Human muscles often twitch or spasm for apparently no reason and if you experience that often enough, having it happen outside on a hot day while you’re working or exercising may not seem out of place. However, you should be aware of your work environment and of the potential. Heat cramps won’t always occur prior to other heat injuries, but if you do experience them, they are a warning you should not ignore. Everyone knows they need to drink enough water but what’s enough? And is there such a thing as too much?

Treating heat cramps is fairly simple (if you recognize them as such): while heat cramps may dissipate on their own, you can assist them in going away by resting in a cool area. Drink some water or a sports drink—something with some electrolytes in it. Massaging cramped or cramping muscles can help but do so with a softer rather than firmer touch. You aren’t trying to accomplish deep tissue massage; you’re simply trying to help relax the muscle. After the cramp is fully dissipated, you might try to mild stretching before returning to work.

Heat Exhaustion is the next level heat injury and can be very dangerous if not treated quickly and properly. Heat exhaustion symptoms include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse. The challenge most often experienced is that an officer is exercising or working out in the heat and the accelerated pulse rate seems normal. Sweating in a uniform seems normal. When the sweat exceeds “normal” and your heart rate is faster than you’ve experienced during cardiovascular exercise, you’d better be paying attention. Other symptoms may include thirst, fatigue, a headache and nausea. Heat cramps may accompany or occur before heat exhaustion.

Treatment for heat exhaustion is to get out of the heat (seems simple, right?). Find a cool or air-conditioned indoor space and if none such is available, find some shade. Loosen your uniform if you can and drink some water or a sports drink—again, something with some electrolytes in it. If it’s safe and possible, take off your body armor. As great as it is for protection, it’s usually a great insulator—which means it’s like wearing a winter vest around your torso. Remove it if you can safely and let your torso cool off.

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke victims need to be treated immediately to prevent brain injuries and other organ damage. Heat stroke symptoms include nausea, confusion, seizures, dry skin (because sweating has stopped) and a core temperature over 104°F. A loss of consciousness can occur.

Treatment for heat stroke is to immediately begin cooling the victim. Call 911 and while you’re waiting on an ambulance to arrive, move the victim to an indoor, air-conditioned area. If none such is available, move them into the shade and begin cooling them by loosening their clothing/uniform and fan the while moistening their skin with water. If available, apply ice packs to their arm pits, groin and neck. The goal is to, as quickly as possible, get their core temperature back down to 101°F or close thereto.

Now let’s discuss hydration. Everyone knows they need to drink enough water but what’s enough? And is there such a thing as too much? If you don’t drink enough water you can suffer from dehydration. The most recognized symptom of dehydration is thirst. The second best known symptom is dark colored urine or lack of need to urinate. If you are working in a hot environment, or even a moderately temperate environment with enough effort to cause yourself to sweat (like riding a patrol bike on a 75°F sunny day), you should be drinking enough water to have to urinate every four to six hours. Understand that sodas, coffee and other caffeinated drinks, are not helping you hydrate. Caffeine is a diuretic and therefore helps your body void water and sodium. If you experience dehydration symptoms, drinking water, an electrolyte-rich drink (such as sports drinks) or Pedialyte can help you quickly rehydrate.

The other hydration concern is when, believe it or not, you drink too much water. Hyponatremia is when you drink so much water that you cause an imbalance, on the low side, of electrolytes and sodium in your body. Symptoms of hyponatremia can include headaches, dizziness, nausea and cramps. Treatment usually requires an IV solution to replace electrolytes and sodium in your system.

Dehydration often complicates or accelerates the impact of heat related injuries such as cramps or exhaustion. Cooling and rehydration can often correct mild heat injuries before they become life threatening or cause permanent, disabling injury.

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