Workplace Heat Stress, Part 3: Long-Term Effects of Illness

Heat-related illnesses have scary symptoms, and most of the time require medical attention. If you’re not able to seek treatment right away, your body may be injured in ways that can’t be repaired. Here’s what you should keep in mind if you’ve recently suffered a heat-related illness.

How Is Extreme Heat Dangerous?

There is no research confirming that heat exposure alone causes ill effects on worker health. However, when heat-related illness kicks in, immediate treatment is a must. High body temperature causes a quick decline in the function of many vital organs and triggers changes to blood chemistry that could be fatal. Heat-related illnesses can be especially dangerous for those with pre-existing conditions or who are using certain medications.

While symptoms related to heat exposure follow similar patterns, the symptoms of persisting disease may not bring your heat-related injury to mind. Most conditions can be triggered by more than one thing, after all. If you are diagnosed with one of these long-term diseases or disabilities shortly after experiencing heat stroke, your employer may be at fault—and may be required to pay out workers’ compensation.

Organ Damage and Lasting Effects

Kidney Damage
Organ damage begins to occur when your body temperature exceeds 104 F, and kidneys are vulnerable to this as well as to changes in blood consistency. Dehydration can lead to thicker or even coagulated blood that can block kidney function. If not treated, this could lead to kidney failure; and even after treatment, your kidney may sustain permanent tissue lesions that impair its function.

Liver Failure
Your liver also suffers when your body temperature is high, possibly in response to high levels of potassium or toxic chemicals in your blood. Other symptoms of heat stroke, including shock, heart failure, and low blood oxygen, may also cause liver damage. Thankfully, most damage to your liver can be reversed with treatment; if you lose function permanently, liver transplant may be the best road to recovery.

Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
Heat stroke often causes inflammation in the lungs and brain, a symptom that calls in antimicrobial cells called “neutrophils” to help your body fight off infections. When there is no infection to fight, they may cause lasting damage to your body: the chemicals they release to aid in immune defense can damage lung tissue, allowing liquids to trickle into your lungs. Over time, ARDS makes it harder to breathe and decreases the amount of oxygen that makes it into your bloodstream. It may result in respiratory failure or a collapsed lung if not treated.

Heart Disease

Congestive Heart Failure
One of the scariest effects of heat stroke or other heat-related illnesses is congestive heart failure. Heart failure results when your heart can’t pump enough blood to your body. Because your heart has to work harder just to keep you cool in high temperature/high humidity environments, adding additional stressors (such as physical exertion) may make your body demand more than your heart can do. Heart failure can affect the health of other organs, and your heart may sustain lasting damage as well.

Heart Attack
Most of the time, we think of heart attacks as something we can personally fight by making the right dietary and lifestyle choices. Indeed, there are many personal risk factors, but studies have found environmental factors as well. Higher temperatures or large temperature changes can increase the risk for heart attack and its complications.

Arrhythmia
Arrhythmia, or heartbeat irregularities, doesn’t sound very serious. However, it can severely affect your heart function and result in blood shortages to some parts of your body. If you develop an arrhythmia due to straining your heart or electrolyte deficiencies, you may need to take medications, avoid substances such as caffeine and alcohol, or even use a pacemaker for the rest of your life.

Brain Damage

Loss of Consciousness or Coma
When your body gets too hot, it starts to shut down, and your brain is no exception. Even if you do not completely lose consciousness, you may experience disorientation or become delirious. Some people recover fully from disruptions in consciousness, but others see lasting effects such as a decrease in concentration, coordination or muscle control, or difficulty speaking. Some people have even developed paraplegia after intense heat stroke.

Cerebral Edema
High internal temperatures may cause your brain to swell. In the worst cases, cerebral edema results in death. For those who survive, the increased pressure in the head may constrict blood flow to the brain and result in permanent damage to brain cells and blood vessels. Seizures, brain hemorrhage, and even the death of brain tissue occur after heat stroke. Patients often have lasting trouble with sleep, movement, and communication; they may also develop chronic headaches or depression.

Thinking Long-Term After a Heat-Related Injury

If a heat-related injury is identified and treated before it becomes serious, you may be able to return to your job soon after with no lasting effects. But, if your injury is severe enough that you have to seek emergency care, your body may have suffered injury that will take a lot more treatment to fix—or that may be irreversible.

Any medical expenses accumulated due to an on-the-job injury that was caused by employer negligence may be recoverable through workers’ compensation. The same goes for long-term care, or medical conditions that may never be fully cured. Permanent disability benefits help cover the cost of treatment and other losses related to permanent injury such as missed wages or payment for permanent damage to bodily functions.

In cases like heat-related illness, your employer may do all they can to prove they weren’t at fault—after all, heat stroke and the like have many causes. Don’t let them deny your claim and refuse to pay the compensation you deserve. The Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford, LLC is your go-to for workplace injury in and around Atlanta.

Come back next week on 9/30 to learn about what both you and your employer can do to prevent heat-related illness on the job.

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