Staying safe in the extreme desert heat

10 Jun 2022 | Laurie Pearson Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow

As temperatures begin to soar in the Mojave Desert, medical personnel offer guidance on maintaining your health aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, California.

   “Every year in the United States, hundreds of people die and thousands are injured as a result of excessive exposure to heat,” said Emergency Medical Services Chief Greg Kunkel, with Fire and Emergency Services. “This is especially poignant here in the Mojave Desert where you are not only dealing with excessive heat throughout the summer, but extremely low humidity, and drying winds as well. Nature wants a balance in humidity. So when it’s extremely dry out, the ambient weather will wick the moisture from your body, and quickly.”

   One of the more dangerous results of moisture being wicked from the human body, is a sudden depletion of electrolytes, especially sodium. Low sodium is the #1 electrolyte imbalance seen in our nation’s ER’s.

   “Electrolytes are electrically charged minerals which are dissolved within our body’s fluids and when they are properly balanced, they preserve the body’s nerve and muscle functions,” Kunkel said. “When there is an electrolyte imbalance, there will be a dysfunction in the cells’ ability to function properly. It can alter the cells’ potential and lead to complications, some of which can be life threatening.”

   These electrolytes include sodium, potassium, and chloride, which play significant roles in the homeostasis of cells (i.e., the self-regulating process of the body in order to adjust to conditions for optimal survival), as well as calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate. 

  “Here in the High Desert a specific condition called Hyponatremia, caused by low sodium levels which can happen when unreplaced fluid is lost through the skin, due to excessive sweating,” Kunkel explained. “Dehydration is certainly an issue, but the electrolyte imbalance is what will cause very serious issues.”

    There are various levels of heat related illnesses and they range from less serious heat rash to the life threatening heat stroke.

Heat-Related Illnesses:

(CDC Graphic here)

   “Pay attention to the heat flags, check the weather regularly, and make sure to adjust work to rest ratios when the heat index is high,” Kunkel said. “Instead of working 30 minutes and resting 10, maybe work 15 and rest 10. Find shade when able, and increase your hydration and electrolyte consumption. In general, you should drink half your body weight, in ounces of water. However, when it’s extremely hot and dry, you need to increase that, if you spend any time working outdoors. It’s not uncommon to require a gallon of fluids.”

   Important things to keep in mind,” said Nurse Michelle Wolfe, Occupational Health, “are to ‘Think it through, Plan, Monitor Yourself and Others’. As you drink water and electrolyte/sports drinks, keep them at a 3:1 ratio. Monitor how you feel. Is your urine diluted? Are you drinking enough?”

   During heatwaves, there are several things you can do to ensure your health and safety.

  • Drink plenty of water and add a sports drink at a 3-to-1 ratio. Encourage others to hydrate.
  • Use a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.
  • Carry extra water and a fully charged phone when travelling.
  • Wear loose fitting clothing, made with breathable fabrics, with long sleeves and long pant legs to reduce skin exposure to the sun and heat.
  • Limit exposure during hottest parts of the day. Here in the High Desert, that is late afternoon. Plan ahead to complete outdoor tasks in the early morning hours.
  • Frequently check on those who may be higher risk, such as elderly, disabled and those who are homebound.
  • Never leave children or pets in vehicles – EVER – even with the windows down.
  • Provide plenty of fresh water for pets and leave the water in shaded areas.
  • Ensure pets are brought indoors during heatwaves and that they always have access to shade if spending any time outdoors. If it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for them.

   The goal is to prevent heat related illnesses. Stop physical activity and move to a cool place when able. However, if someone begins to experience symptoms, act quickly to prevent escalation.

   “Taking quick action could save a life,” Wolfe said. “Call for help if needed and get that help to the person quickly.”

   “If experiencing heat related illness, it is important to reduce the body’s core temperature immediately, and aggressively hydrate, adding electrolytes if you can,” Kunkel said. “Get to air conditioning, or at least shade, remove unnecessary clothing, apply water, wet towels on neck, groin and armpits to accelerate cooling.” 

   Pay close attention to symptoms and seek medical attention if:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Confusion
  • Irregular heart beat or ‘palpitations’

Take extreme caution if you have any of the following:

Heart conditions, including high blood pressure

Kidneys problems

Take medications

Had a previous heat related injury

   For a medical emergency, to obtain immediate assistance, call 9-1-1. However, because 9-1-1 is routed through the California Highway Patrol dispatch office off-base, be sure to relay your exact location on base. Be specific, using road names, building number, room, in addition to explaining what the condition is, who the patient is, and other details.

   “Send someone else to meet EMS if someone is available, so that responders can find the patient quickly,” said Wolfe.

   For further information about heat related illnesses, contact EMS at 760-577-6081, or Occupational Health at 760-577-6349.