Research News

Heat illness expert urges caution for those most vulnerable

Older woman suffering from heat illness.


Published July 15, 2022

Headshot of Riana Pryor.
“There is a misconception that heat stroke requires an individual to stop sweating. This couldn’t be further from the truth. ”
Riana R. Pryor, assistant professor
Department of of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences

With scorching high temperatures soaring to dangerous levels in parts of the U.S. and China this summer, it’s important to pay close attention to people most vulnerable to heat illness — older adults and younger children, says a UB researcher who studies how the human body responds to extreme temperatures.

For example, most people know when they are thirsty. ‘‘Most people start to sense thirst when they become 2% dehydrated,’’ says Riana R. Pryor, who directs UB’s Hydration, Exercise, and Thermoregulation (HEAT) Laboratory.

However, some people, especially older adults, don’t sense thirst as quickly, so it’s important to make sure older adults are staying hydrated in the heat, adds Pryor, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, School of Public Health and Health Professions.

‘‘Heat-related deaths are 100% preventable,’’ Pryor says. However, the rate of heat-related mortality keeps increasing because people are not adequately informed about heat illness identification and appropriate treatments, as well as prevention strategies to keep themselves protected. That’s why it’s important to recognize symptoms of common heat illnesses, she says.

“There is a misconception that heat stroke requires an individual to stop sweating. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While some people may stop sweating, I have treated over 20 patients with heat stroke and all were profusely sweating,” says Pryor, an athletic trainer who has volunteered at road race medical tents such as the Buffalo Marathon, Falmouth Road Race and Marine Corps Marathon to diagnose and treat exertional heat illnesses.

Common heat illnesses include heat rash (red, raised bumps that itch or feel itchy); heat edema (swelling in hands, arms, legs and feet); heat syncope (fainting while sedentary in the heat); heat cramps (muscle cramps associated with exercise and wandering, painful muscle spasms, usually in the legs or abdomen); and heat stroke (a medical emergency in which body temperature rises above 105 degrees).

Pryor said three types of people are most at risk in the heat:

  • Those with reduced heat dissipation, which is when heat transfers from a hot object (a person) to a colder object (the cooler environment). This often includes older adults and young children, and can be due to housing insecurity, a lack of air conditioning or the result of taking certain medications.
  • Those who are physically active and have increased heat production.
  • Those with greater strain on their cardiovascular system, often because of underlying health conditions like diabetes, chronic kidney disease and chronic cardiopulmonary disease.

Pryor offers the following tips on ways people can protect themselves from heat illnesses and stay cool during the summer:

  • Take a cool shower. It’s the fastest way to cool down.
  • Time your activities to the coolest and least humid parts of the day: typically mornings in the Northeast, evenings in the South.
  • Take rest breaks in the shade – at least five minute breaks after every 15 minutes of activity.
  • Rehydrate during breaks in activity, and stay hydrated.
  • Wear less, loose and light clothing to promote air flow around your body.
  • If you suspect heat stroke, implement aggressive whole body rapid cooling such as cold water immersion.
  • Do not leave children or pets in your vehicle, even for short periods of time.