Recreational Boating Safety – Heat-Related Conditions

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
We are right in the dead middle of summer, and it has been very hot. No matter how hot it is on land, it is almost always hotter on the water due to the reflection of heat waves up from the water. Even the simplest form of heat related conditions, sunburn, can rapidly lead to a life-threatening condition, sun stroke. This column will be about recognizing the symptoms of heat-related conditions and what to do about them.

Sunburn
Sunburn is sneaky. You don’t know you are burning until you are already sunburned. Prevention is the best option. Be aware that there are different degrees of sunburn, and that sunburn can lead to the following heat-related conditions. In severe cases hospitalization can be required. It is nothing to take lightly.

SYMPTOMS: Sunburn appears as redness, swelling, or blistering of the skin. Other effects of overexposure to the sun are fever, gastrointestinal symptoms, malaise, and pigment changes in the skin.

PREVENTION: Staying in the shade when possible is a start. However, just getting out of direct sunlight is not always enough since sun can be just as harmful when reflected off a bright surface, such as sand or water. Sunscreen lotion with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher should be used. Protective clothing such as a hat with a brim and sunglasses with UV protection for eyes should be worn.

TREATMENT: Most sunburns do not appear fully after exposure to the sun for several hours. Treatment consists of applying cool wet towels to the affected area. Cooling the skin temperature is very important. Keeping the skin moist but being wary of what product is applied is also essential. Many lotions contain perfumes, alcohol, or wax that will only aggravate the burn. Several types of first aid sprays give fast but short-lived relief.

Dehydration
Dehydration is due to loss of fluids and electrolytes through the kidneys, perspiration, and respiration. Two to three liters of water is required to maintain hydration. No caffeine.

SYMPTOMS: When 6 to 10% of body fluids are lost, symptoms increase in this order:

  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Tingling in the arms and legs
  • Skin color turns bluish
  • Indistinct speech
  • Inability to walk
  • Cramping legs and stomach

PREVENTION: Drinking fresh clean water is the best and easiest method to replace fluid loss and prevent dehydration. Almost all fluids are suitable including fruit juices, soups, and water. Drinks that do not contain sodium (salt) are recommended. Passengers should drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, especially in warm, dry climates. Taking along an ample supply of water is a must during prolonged periods away from a water source.

TREATMENT: Remove from further exposure to heat and/or sun and should receive prompt medical attention.

Heat Rash / Prickly Heat
Heat rash, also known as prickly heat, is the breakdown of the body’s ability to perspire. This leads to decreased evaporative cooling of the skin.

SYMPTOMS: Heat rash interferes with sleep, resulting in decreased efficiency and increased cumulative fatigue, making the individual susceptible to more serious heat disorders. Heat rash also accelerates the onset of heat stroke. Symptoms are:

  • Pink or red minute (small) lesions.
  • Skin irritation (prickling)
  • Frequent, severe itching

PREVENTION: Rotate exposure between heat related and cool. Use a Bimini cover or another method of providing shade when the sun starts beating down. Pull anchor and get the boat moving if the humidity is so high that sweat won’t evaporate.

TREATMENT: Remove from heat and apply cool, wet towels.

Heat Cramps
Heat cramps are painful contractions caused by excessive salt and water depletion. Legs drawn up, there is excessive sweating, and it causes crying out in pain.

PREVENTION: Stay cool or get cool. Minimize exposure to the heat by staying under cover of a Bimini top or T-top. Pull anchor and get the boat moving to cool everyone off. Consider heading back to shore if you can’t minimize heat exposure.

TREATMENT: Heat cramps can be treated by placing the victim in a cool place and encouraging the victim to lie down in a comfortable position. Cool drinks should be offered to replace fluid loss. Solutions containing electrolytes, like a sports drink, are also useful; however, the ingestion of excessive salt should not be allowed. Cramped muscles must not be treated with heat packs or massage. Prompt medical assistance is recommended for severe or persistent conditions.

Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion typically occurs when people exercise heavily or work in a warm, humid environment where body fluids are lost through heavy sweating. Fluid loss can result in a decrease of blood-flow to vital organs. In heat exhaustion, sweat does not evaporate as it should, possibly because of high humidity or too many layers of clothing. As a result, the body is not cooled effectively.

SYMPTOMS: When suffering from heat exhaustion, a person collapses and sweats profusely. The victim has pale skin, a pounding heart, nausea, headache, and acts restless.

PREVENTIVE MEASURES: Minimize strenuous activity. Heat exhaustion is about over-exertion in high heat conditions. If not recognized and treated, heat exhaustion can lead to life-threatening heat stroke.

TREATMENT: First aid and medivac. Notify the Coast Guard whenever you have such a serious condition.

Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is a major medical emergency and results from the complete breakdown of the body’s sweating and heat regulatory mechanisms. Heat stroke or “sun stroke” is caused by operating in bright sun or working in a hot environment, such as an engine compartment. The onset of heat stroke is very rapid. This is a life-threatening condition. Your body has completely lost its ability to regulate its temperature.

SYMPTOMS: The major symptoms of heat stroke are:

  • Red skin, hot and dry to the touch (cessation of sweating)
  • Characteristic body temperature above 105° F (40.5° C)
  • Headache
  • Weak and rapid pulse
  • Confusion, violence, lack of coordination, delirium, and/or unconsciousness
  • Brain damage (if immediate medical treatment is not given)

PREVENTION: Recognize the less serious heat related conditions and get relief from the heat before a life-threatening condition such as heat stroke develops. The progression from heat exhaustion to heat stroke can occur very quickly in high temperatures, but age and physical condition of the person can accelerate the onset.

TREATMENT: Heat stroke is the most serious of all heat disorders and is an immediate threat to life. There is a high mortality rate associated with heat stroke. It is important to remember that heat exhaustion is the result of overloaded heat balance mechanisms that are still functioning. Heat stroke strikes the victim when the thermo-regulatory mechanisms are not functioning, and the main avenue of heat loss, evaporation of sweat, is blocked. The patient must be treated immediately, or death may occur. It is best to carefully remove the victim to a cooler environment and seek medical assistance.

Protect Your Pets
Your pets are not only as likely to be seriously affected by the heat, but they are also more likely to suffer a life-threatening heat related condition. Hot summer days are not the best time to bring your pets aboard unless you have taken steps to keep them cool. They need cool drinking water and shade more than you do.

Plan Your Trips with the Weather In Mind
An early morning or late afternoon venture on the water is more likely to be an enjoyable adventure than hitting the water during the hottest part of the day. Friday when my fishing partner and I were heading in, every boat we saw had their Bimini tops up. If you don’t have readily available shade on your boat, don’t go out during the hottest part of the day. It cannot only be a miserable trip, it could become life-threatening.

Wear Protective Clothing
A lot of swimsuits, shirts, fishing pants, and other clothing for wear on the beach or on the water are UV-rated for protection. Many fishing shirts are hooded, and most are long sleeved. They are light weight but highly protective. They are designed to protect against sunburn and skin cancer yet still be quite comfortable. Another great item to wear is a cooling towel, which is designed to be soaked in cool water and worn around the neck.

Summary
Learn to recognize the different heat-related conditions and waste no time in treating them if you see symptoms developing in you or a passenger. Practice prevention as much as possible. Have a marine VHF/FM radio on board in case you need to call for medical assistance. We receive many medical assistance calls this time of year due to heat related conditions.

An added caution: Recent medical studies indicate that older persons who also take certain medications such as beta blockers (some blood pressure medications) or platelet inhibitors (aspirin is one of the mentioned platelet-inhibiting drugs) are at a significantly higher risk of developing heat stroke or heat-related heart attacks due to their effect on the body’s heat-regulating systems. Review your medication warnings and keep the cautions in mind when planning a trip out on the water. Many medications warn to avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at www.uscgboating.org. Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] I am available to perform free Vessel Safety Checks in my area, and I will come to your location to perform them. SAFE BOATING!

[Aug-9-2022]

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