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Brave New World

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Photo by sukhdev singh on Unsplash

Published in the Humboldt Independent on August 25, 2020

COVID news getting old? Well, let’s take a little break from our unwelcome guest Rona as we embark on Heat’n’smoketember and turn our attention to how to cope with unprecedented heat and humidity combined with toxic particulate smoke from infernos raging all over the state.

When doing chores, running errands, exercising, etc, be on the lookout for signs of heat illness.

Not unlike the pandemic, the heat and fires worry us on multiple levels, physical and emotional. We have loved ones and friends facing evacuation or possible ruin and we know it could be us next, fire being as fickle as the tiny coronavirus about who is chosen as its next victim.

Day after day of oppressive heat takes a psychic toll as sleep becomes elusive and irritability flares. It makes sense to reduce exposure to the elements and rest whenever possible. When you have to keep going, doing chores, running errands, exercising, etc, be on the lookout for signs of heat illness, which, when mild is easily treatable at home. However, prolonged exertion in high temperatures can quickly turn into an emergency situation requiring urgent care.

Heat illness

Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related illness and result from excessive perspiration and depletion of moisture in the muscle tissue. Painful muscle cramps and spasms can occur in the abdomen, arms, or legs and can be a sign of heat exhaustion.

Treat heat cramps by pausing for water every 15-20 minutes when you are exerting yourself in the heat. Keep your electrolytes up by snacking on light carbs or drinking a carbohydrate-replacing beverage. (You don’t have to buy expensive sports drinks. Recipes for natural, homemade drinks are available online.) Those on a low-sodium diet or with heart issues should seek medical attention, just to be on the safe side. Most heat cramps resolve within an hour.

Heat exhaustion is a more global condition resulting from excessive sweating. Its symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, reduced urine output, irritability and elevated body temperature. It is imperative to recognize symptoms of heat exhaustion before they progress to heat stroke which is almost always a 911 situation. If you begin to experience these symptoms and you are alone, get help from a friend or neighbor, and if none are available call 911. You will need to move out of the heat, take off excess clothing, and apply cold moist compresses to the skin. Take sips of water or electrolyte replacement drinks frequently. If vomiting or disorientation occurs, assume the condition is progressing to heat stroke and get emergency help.

Heat Stroke is a medical emergency. Symptoms include a temperature up to 104 degrees, warm dry skin, rapid heart rate, nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, stupor. The body has ceased to be able to cool itself. While waiting for emergency treatment, get out of the heat into a cool or shady area with plenty of air circulation, and apply ice to armpits and groins. Drink fluids if possible.

Preventing heat-related illness might seem a matter of common sense, but in these stressful times, it is not always good sense that guides our actions.

Schedule heavier chores, exercise, etc, for cooler morning hours and have a buddy system set up. Stay out of hot vehicles. Drink about a cup of water for every 15-20 minutes of exertion and take breaks every 20-30 minutes to take personal inventory and get into some shade. Move slowly and take note if you feel confused or disoriented. Dark urine is a sign you are not getting enough fluid. Wear light loose clothing including a hat that offers some sun protection. Acclimate yourself to high temperatures gradually, 20-30 minutes at a time till you get used to it. Ask your provider if any medications you take contribute to heat-related illness. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Children and teens are especially susceptible to heat-related illness because their bodies take longer to adjust to extreme temperatures.

Humidity is an important factor in heat-related illness and not one we are used to in northern California apart from on the coast. Humidity can interfere with the body’s ability to cool itself because it prevents the evaporation of sweat, so 85 degrees and humid can be as dangerous as 105 degrees and dry. The recent heatwave in mid-August and the accompanying lack of cooling off in the evening may have been a preview of the summer weather we can expect as climate change advances.

Unhealthy air quality

Air-quality related illness due to inhaling smoke and ash from wildfire is another danger we are becoming frighteningly accustomed to. Every year in the late summer and early fall we now have fire season. Thousands of acres burn all over California and days or weeks of smoke hanging in the air can make us ill. Particles are the most dangerous element in smoke and can become deeply embedded in the lungs. When buildings and cars burn they release toxic chemicals and ash increasing the risk of long-term damage and exacerbating existing lung conditions.

People with asthma or heart or lung issues should consult their medical providers for the best advice on how to protect themselves from serious effects of wildfire smoke.

It is often advised that we stay indoors and out of the smoke when air quality is poor. The Northcoast Unified Air Quality Management District is the best source of information about local conditions (ys707-443-3093). But use your nose and eyes as well to identify smoke in the atmosphere and err on the side of caution.

Indoor air should be kept as clean as possible if it is necessary to be indoors long term. Keep doors and windows shut, run an air conditioner if you have one, and consider getting an air cleaner which may be well worth the investment compared to costly damage to your health. Cooking on a gas stove, smoking, and vacuuming can all increase indoor air pollution. Your “stay bag” should contain several days worth of non-perishables that don’t require cooking.

Smoke may cause burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

While N95 masks have been discouraged for Covid-19 prevention, they are very effective for filtering smoke particles out of the air. They must be fitted and worn correctly. The masks you are using to minimize your virus risk will likely do nothing for keeping smoke particles out of your lungs.

We expect to learn more in the coming weeks about the interface of COVID and smoke-related illnesses.

Use good sense when you must be outside in unhealthy air quality. Do not exert yourself or allow children to do so. Children breathe a higher volume of air relative to their size, making them more susceptible to particulate pollution. Elders may also be more susceptible and other at-risk groups include pregnant women, diabetics, and anyone with heart or lung conditions.

Smoke may cause burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Some of these symptoms overlap with virus symptoms, so it is important to be extra vigilant, especially if you have pre-existing conditions. Consult your provider if in doubt and follow their advice, whether it is to stay safe at home, have a telehealth appointment, or come in to be seen face to face.

This is our brave new world: a raging pandemic, a devastating fire season we can count on, and changes in the weather we have no way of precisely anticipating or preparing for. Homo sapiens are built to adapt and survive; we do our best when supporting each other. Now, more than ever, let’s help each other adapt to the new normal. Knowing we are in this together may be the best substitute for a cool breeze or a deep breath.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.