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Des Moines doctor gives tips on preventing heat exhaustion

882 Iowans were hospitalized due to heat exposure in 2020.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Summer might still be a few days away on the calendar, but the heat's already here. It's a great opportunity to get outside, but doctors want you to be safe, so you're not ending up in the hospital.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, 882 Iowans were hospitalized for heat-related medical issues in 2020—94 of them in Polk County. On June 12, Brooke Johnson, D.O. with UnityPoint Des Moines, took care of three athletes competing in the IRONMAN triathlon who were admitted for heat issues.

"That was the first day that we saw this really high heat. And it's even gotten hotter since then. So heat can be very dangerous for people for sure," Johnson said.

There's plenty of warning signs for heat exhaustion. Early symptoms include excess sweating, body cramps and headaches. But when things escalate, such as if someone is having trouble walking or the sweating actually stops, then you should get help.

"By now you've reached the threshold, you need to be getting help at the doctor. You need to be finding an emergency room if you're already to the point of confusion and can't even sweat," Johnson said.

It's not just temporary exhaustion that can be a concern; according to the CDC, an average of 658 Americans die due to heat every year.

While anyone can be at risk for heat issues, the risk is greater the older you get. The highest rate of ER visits for heat illness in 2020 came from adults between 35 and 64, but other seniors over weren't far behind. 

"Older adults usually over 65 can be at higher risk. Those with chronic medical problems, diabetes, heart trouble," Johnson said.

So what can you do to stay safe? Number one, limit your time outside, and if you're able to, plan your trips for mornings or evenings when the sun isn't as intense.

And last but certainly not least, make sure you're drinking plenty of fluids whenever you're outside. Johnson says if you're feeling thirsty, it's probably time to rehydrate.

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