Why worry about heat safety?

Earlier this summer, a family member did a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike with friends. They prepared well for this hike, but some of their companions did not…and the planned hike ended with an extra day leaving the Canyon, one group member airlifted to hospital, and one disoriented, exhausted member needing the support of the two healthy hikers to finish the trail. What on earth happened?

Dehydration and heat happened. As we approach the hottest time of the year, heat-related injuries and illnesses begin to skyrocket. It’s alarmingly easy to miss warning signs for dehydration and heat injuries, so we’ve dedicated this blog to summer safety.

The floor of the Grand Canyon reaches significantly higher temperatures than either rim, and during their trip the canyon bottom hit a high of 108F. Add in next-to-no shade, no wind, not enough water, and too-few electrolytes, and you get a recipe for disaster.

Dehydration

Dehydration, put simply, is what happens when your body loses too much water. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about dehydration is how insidious it can be, mostly because people frequently wait too long to drink. Per the Cleveland Clinic, “the best way to beat dehydration is to drink before you get thirsty.” By the time you want a drink, your body has already gone into overdrive trying to keep itself hydrated. Depending on how strenuously you’re working, and how hot it is outside, waiting for water until you feel that you want it may cause enough damage to create a medical emergency. This effect worsens significantly with high temperatures, too, so be sure to drink frequently—even if you don’t feel like you need water. Dehydration symptoms range from headaches all the way up to heatstroke, which can be fatal. It’s definitely not worth taking the chance.

One more thing to remember: simply drinking water doesn’t necessarily mean that you are hydrated. Depending on the conditions, the work you’re doing, and your own health, you may need to consciously replace or balance electrolytes.

Electrolytes

First things first, what are electrolytes? We found a helpful article by Nancy Clark, published in American Fitness, titled “Electrolytes: What are They.” Accessing this article requires an academic log-in, so we’ll quote the most relevant parts for you:

Electrolytes are electrically charged particles that help the body function normally. Some of the more familiar electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Calcium and magnesium help muscles contract and relax. Sodium and potassium help water stay in the right balance inside and outside of cells. Sodium is the electrolyte lost in the highest concentration in sweat.

…If you exercise hard for more than four hours in the heat… you may benefit from replacing sodium losses, particularly if you sweat a lot or have been consuming only plain water. In that case, salty recovery snacks could be a smart choice–particularly if you are prone to muscle cramps.

…[Other] Problems arise when people overhydrate with too much plain water or standard sports drinks. The very small amount of sodium in a sports drink is added to enhance fluid retention, not to replace sodium losses.

This information leads us to a condition related to dehydration, hyponatremia.

Hyponatremia

On a searing summer day stuffed full of activities, plain water may not be enough to keep you safe. A lesser-known condition related to dehydration is something called hyponatremia. According to the Mayo Clinic, “hyponatremia occurs when the concentration of sodium in your blood is abnormally low. Sodium is an electrolyte, and it helps regulate the amount of water that’s in and around your cells.”

Hyponatremia, then, is basically dehydration resulting specifically from a lack of sodium. This can be caused by several things, not just overhydrating, but the danger here is that simply drinking more water won’t fix the problem. If low sodium is preventing your cells from being properly hydrated, it doesn’t matter how much water you guzzle down. If you’re planning a long day of exercise and sunshine, you can prevent this by eating salty snacks and using electrolyte drinks (or powders) in addition to water.

The disoriented hiker in my relative’s group made the mistake of drinking about five glasses of lemonade in less than an hour, without replenishing sodium or other electrolytes. Between low sodium levels, high heat, and physical exhaustion, the lemonade simply wasn’t enough to rehydrate him. This combination caused severe enough dehydration that when one of his sons collapsed on the trail and couldn’t move, he stumbled ahead about a mile to find the others and incoherently explained that “I can’t make him move. He’s resting. He won’t move.”

The other two in the group then needed to abandon him; one went back to find and stay with the ill group member, and the other hiked ahead to contact park rangers (the disoriented hiker was left in the shade with proper hydration). It took a full night of medical attention and an extra day resting in the Canyon for everyone to make it out. This could have been entirely avoided with more purposeful hydration.

Conclusion

All turned out well, in the end, but the worst part of the whole story is how tragically it could have gone. Had the first dehydrated hiker been too disoriented to be able to find the rest of his group, or too disoriented to communicate that something was wrong, one or both easily might have died. The dehydration, combined with heat illness (we’ll talk about that in more detail next time), created a total disaster only resolved by several little miracles. Don’t ruin your own summer fun by making the same mistakes. Take care to stay hydrated and those electrolytes balanced!

We’ll have more information about the various types of heat illness in our next post. See you next time!