"Summer time and the living is easy" is the famous song line from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. This summer in southwest Florida has been "easy living"—but also hot and humid. Heat and sun, combined with high humidity, can change us from comfortable to over-heated very quickly if we are not careful.

The estimated number of people in our nation who die each summer from heat-related problems ranges from 175 to 1,250. It is important to know the causes of these tragedies in order to avoid them, or get immediate treatment if they strike.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that those at greatest risk for heat-related illness include infants and children up to four years of age, as well as people 65 years of age and older. Those who are considerably overweight and patients who are ill or on certain medications are also at a higher risk.

People suffer from heat-related illness when the body's intrinsic control system cannot cool itself. Normally, we perspire, which cools the body by having moisture evaporate from the skin's surface. Sweating is usually an efficient process that can keep up with heat from the environment. But under very adverse conditions, a person's body temperature rises above normal, initially causing sluggishness, confusion, dizziness, nausea and headache. It may then progress to a rapid pulse, abnormal blood pressure and unconsciousness. If left untreated, organ failure ensues, ultimately followed by death.

Most heat-related injuries can be prevented by adequate hydration and by avoiding heavy clothing, vigorous exercise in excessively hot environments, sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, saunas, poor living conditions, and lack of air-conditioning. Some chronic illnesses and certain medications can cause a person to be more sensitive to hotter temperatures as well.

Unfortunately, dehydration is quite common, but can easily be avoided by drinking non-alcoholic fluids before getting overheated or starting to exercise. If you become thirsty, you are already behind on water consumption. Drinking small amounts about every twenty minutes, if vigorously exercising, is prudent. Salt tablets used to be popular, but are not necessary. Sports drinks can be helpful, but are sometimes too concentrated and can easily be diluted with plain water.

Heat-related injuries include heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Heat stroke is much more serious and can be fatal if not treated quickly. Heat exhaustion is more common, though not as dangerous; it can, however, progress to heat stroke if not treated.

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Heat stroke is divided into two categories related to causal factors. Classic heat stroke affects mostly the elderly and chronically ill, those who do not exercise, and patients on some specific medications. During heat waves in areas without enough air conditioned refuges, this first type of heat stroke can be common. The second type of heat stroke occurs mostly in younger individuals who are strenuously exercising or working in hot environments and not getting enough fluids, rest, or shade.

The take-home message is to stay cool, enjoy the rest of the summer weather, and "live easy"—with plenty of fluid intake, shade, air-conditioning and common sense.