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Double the Heat DangerSummer Pregnancy Increases Heat-related Problems

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During a typical Louisiana summer, local temperatures swelter and hover near 100 degrees with heat indexes even higher. While the heat can be very uncomfortable, it can also be extremely dangerous. Dr. Yolunda Taylor, Obstetrician/Gynecologist and Chief of Staff at Woman’s Hospital warns, “If you are pregnant, drink plenty of fluids and take shelter during the hottest part of the day, as pregnancy makes a woman more prone to dehydration and heat stroke.”

Heat Exhaustion
“Extreme heat of 90 degrees and above is a real danger for pregnant women,” continues Dr. Taylor. “During pregnancy, a woman is supporting two bodies, therefore, when a woman’s core temperature begins to rise; it takes twice the energy to cool down both the mother and baby. The result is that pregnant women suffer heat exhaustion more rapidly in extreme temperatures.”

Heat exhaustion refers to an abnormally heightened body temperature, onset by hot weather or heavy physical exertion coupled with insufficient body fluid. For pregnant women whose body temperatures are naturally elevated, heat exhaustion is a very real concern in summer months. Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting

Sometimes a person experiences symptoms of heat exhaustion before progressing to heat stroke, which is a true medical emergency that can be fatal if not properly and promptly treated. Symptoms of heat stroke can sometimes mimic those of heart attack or other conditions.

  • High body temperature
  • Absence of sweating, with hot red or flushed dry skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid pulse
  • Flushed skin
  • Confusion, agitation, or hallucinations

Heat stress should be taken very seriously. If you believe yourself or someone around you is experiencing heat exhaustion, Dr. Taylor emphasizes, “take steps to immediately cool the patient down by fanning them, applying ice packs and/or cool water to the skin, provide sips of water, and, especially in the case of pregnant women, bring the patient to the local emergency room as quickly as possible.” If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 immediately.

Effects of Extreme Heat
“When a pregnant woman is exposed to extreme temperatures and begins exhibiting symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, she runs the risk of harming her own health and that of her baby.  In the worst case, the mother may experience pre-term labor or even death,” says Dr. Terrie Thomas, Obstetrician/Gynecologist at Woman’s Hospital.

"The baby is very sensitive to changes in maternal blood pressure. When blood pressure declines, less blood supply is available to the uterus, the placenta, and, of course, the baby," warns Dr. Thomas.  Studies have also shown the use of Jacuzzis and saunas during pregnancy to be linked to neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Dr. Thomas goes on to say, “It is especially important to avoid excessive temperatures during the first trimester, as the baby is developing and then later in pregnancy as excessive heat can trigger premature labor or life-threatening illness or even death.”

In addition to serious health risks, overexposure to the sun during pregnancy may also increase undesirable reddening of the skin and chloasma, a condition with dark, hyperpigmented patches on the face and neck.

Heat Protection
“The most important step to avoid heat stress is to stay well-hydrated,” advises Dr. Thomas. Water is crucial to helping the body adjust to high temperatures. In our humid climate, the body must work even harder to rid itself of excess heat because perspiration can’t evaporate as readily.

Dr. Thomas says pregnant women should take extra precautions to stay cool, and offers the following advice:

  • Exercise indoors as much as possible (obstetrician-approved exercises only)
  • Run errands in the early morning hours or late evening hours when temperatures are cooler
  • Stay hydrated with beverages containing electrolytes and nutrients, such as sports drinks
  • Take frequent breaks during the day
  • Wear light, loose-fitting clothing in light colors
  • Carry a small spritz bottle of water to cool off periodically
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and by using an umbrella.

Food preparation and storage is also important during warmer months when food is often served outside. Bacteria grow faster in warmer weather, so food can spoil more quickly and possibly cause illness. Do not leave food outdoors for more than 1 hour if the temperature is near or above 90 F. You’ll also need to avoid the following foods while pregnant:

  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot
  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses such as queso blanco fresco
  • Pâté or meat spreads
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood
  • Food or beverages that contain unpasteurized milk
  • Salads made in a store, such as ham, chicken, egg, tuna, or seafood salads
  • Raw or undercooked meat and poultry
  • Alcohol and excessive caffeine (greater than ½ cup coffee or ½ can soda) throughout your pregnancy

Remember, pregnant women are much more sensitive to the dangers of heat and food-borne illness.  Following these simple steps will help to ensure a healthy, enjoyable summer for you and your baby.

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