Riding Tips

How to avoid heat illness, and what to do if someone is affected

Whether you’re training, commuting, or racing, if you’re on your bike, you’re at risk of heat illness. Heat illness is a potentially fatal condition which kills more young athletes than any other condition (1). Whilst the risk is relatively low, especially if you take some precautions, it’s still something all cyclists should be wary of and know what steps to take if you or another cyclist starts showing symptoms.

Heat illness refers to a spectrum of diseases ranging from heat cramps to exertional heat stroke (2) and occurs when your core body temperature rises above 40 degrees (normal body temperature shouldn’t vary much higher than 37.5 degrees). The consequences of the untreated condition can range from headaches and dizziness to systemic organ failure.

The single biggest risk factor for heat illness in young healthy people is, unsurprisingly, physical exertion in high ambient temperature. However, many other factors can increase your chance of developing the condition, such as a lack of acclimatisation to heat, poor fitness, a high body fat percentage, dehydration, and an acute illness (3). Additionally, a number of drugs can also increase your risk of suffering from a heat stroke, these include, but are not limited to, anticholinergic agents, anti-epileptic drugs, antihistamines, decongestants, phenothiazines, tricyclic antidepressants, amphetamines, ergogenic stimulants, lithium, diuretics, beta blockers and ethanol. If you’re concerned about any medications you may be taking, always consult your doctor.

Recognising heat stroke early is essential for effective management, however, in some cases, there may be no signs at all. Always be on the lookout the following symptoms:

  • Involuntary painful muscle twitches
  • Dizziness, collapse, syncope (fainting)
  • Fatigue, incoordination
  • Agitation, confusion

There are steps you can take to try to manage the condition, but if you do notice any of these symptoms and think you or someone near you is suffering from a heat-related illness, call 000 immediately, as paramedics are highly trained in treating the condition and will advise you what to do to help the sufferer while you’re waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Resting the person in the shade with elevated feet whilst offering fluids and salty foods is a recommended treatment (2), but if you call triple-0 immediately, they will ask specific questions about the situation and are able to offer you safety advice relevant to your circumstances.

If you are unable to call for an ambulance, all attempts to get the patient to the nearest emergency department should be made.

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Staying hydrated is essential for avoiding heat illness.

You can never completely do away with your risk of suffering from heat illness, but there are steps you can take to minimise your chances of falling victim to it. As the biggest risk factor for heat stroke is high ambient heat, the best option is to avoid riding when it’s sweltering outside, especially if you aren’t used to it. You are able to acclimatise to extreme heat over time, but it’s best not to risk it. Additionally, staying hydrated whilst on the bike is essential. It’s well documented that drinking only when you’re thirsty isn’t enough to compensate for water loss during exercise. It’s recommended that if exercising, you drink at least one litre per hour. Finally, if you have a history of heat cramps or are currently taking any prescription medications, it’s strongly advised that you consult your GP before undertaking any strenuous exercise in the heat.

Cycling is a great sport that we all love! Don’t let the risk of heat illness deter you from getting out on your bike. This article is to help increase awareness to help everyone get home safe!

(1) O’Connor FG, Casa DJ. Exertional heat illness in adolescents and adults: Epidemiology, thermoregulation, risk factors, and diagnosis. UpToDate, Waltham, MA.(Accessed on July 20, 2016.). 2013.

(2) Pryor, R. R., Casa, D. J., Holschen, J. C., O’Connor, F. G., & Vandermark, L. W. (2013). Exertional heat stroke: strategies for prevention and treatment from the sports field to the emergency department. Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine14(4), 267-278.

(3) Gaudio, F. G., & Grissom, C. K. (2016). Cooling methods in heat stroke. Journal of Emergency Medicine50(4), 607-616.

Categories: Riding Tips

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