In the heart of this south Louisiana summer, the heat can be deadly.

Heatstroke affects the elderly and young athletes across the country, but in the high heat and humidity of the Gulf Coast, nearly everyone is susceptible.

More than 600 people die in the United States each year from heat-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Heatstroke — a severe reaction to high temperatures — occurs when the body’s core temperature reaches 103 degrees, says Dr. Desi Valentine, a family medicine practitioner at Baton Rouge General Physicians.

“It is an emergency situation, a very serious condition,” Valentine says. “You want to make sure you get emergency care.”

Before heatstroke comes heat exhaustion. The symptoms are:

Extremely heavy sweating

Cramping

Feeling faint

Disorientation

Once exhaustion gives way to heatstroke, you may vomit or collapse. At that point, Valentine stresses, you must call 911 or seek emergency care.

“Untreated heatstroke can quickly damage the brain, as well as the kidneys, muscular tissue and the heart,” Valentine says. “That is why we always recommend you go to the emergency room.”

How hot?

High heat and humidity — south Louisiana’s normal summer weather — are the prime conditions for heat-related illnesses, the physician says.

“Humidity can increase the risk of heat stroke by making it feel warmer outside, and your body’s core temperature rises more rapidly than it would in dry conditions,” she says. “Additionally, sweat evaporates more slowly in humidity, and that can make it harder for your body to cool off.”

The elderly, especially those living without air conditioning, are vulnerable as are people who are not conditioned to working in the heat.

But heat exhaustion or stroke can happen to anyone as temperatures break 90 degrees. Young athletes suffer heatstroke every year, as do laborers accustomed to working in the heat.

“Louisiana’s not a good place to be in the summertime if you’re an outside worker,” says Dr. Robin Dale, a family medicine practitioner at Our Lady of the Lake Physicians Group in Walker.

Stay cool

Preventing heatstroke starts with water — and lots of it. Throughout the day, drink water before, during and after working or playing outside, Dale says.

Water works best for most people, he says, while sport drinks, such as Gatorade, Powerade and Vitamin Water, are useful when exerting yourself in the heat for more than an hour.

However, carbonated drinks, such as sodas, and caffeinated drinks, such as coffee or tea, should be avoided. Carbonation blocks the absorption of fluids, Dale says, and caffeine is a diuretic, which helps drain fluid from the body.

“As long as you’ve got water as your biggest deal, and not carbonated or caffeinated stuff, any kind of liquid beverage without carbonation or caffeine should help replenish those fluids pretty well,” he says.

Checking your hydration level is simple: Watch your urine. Dark urine means you’re not getting enough water.

“Keeping that urine clear to a light yellow color, you’re probably doing a pretty decent, adequate job on hydration,” Dale says.

Aside from drinking plenty of water, Valentine recommends working in the shade during high heat and wearing lightweight clothing.

“You want to take frequent breaks,” she says. “Most importantly, be cautious and act quickly if you notice symptoms of overheating.”

Take care of yourself

With this summer’s high number of rainy days, doctors are seeing less heatstroke, Dale says. But they expect the numbers to go up as people get out to tackle the yard work that the rain has put on hold.

“You need to get your booty inside and get some rest and get in the cool and don’t try to push it,” Dale says. “That’s where we see all the problems, people pushing too long and too hard.”

His advice? The yard work can wait. Work while it is cool in the morning and late afternoon. Don’t try to finish everything in one marathon session.

“This is a good time to procrastinate,” Dale says. “I usually don’t like procrastination, but this is a great opportunity when you’re feeling bad. There is no need to risk your health to get that lawn finished today. Do it tomorrow.”