Nobody starts their day expecting to end it with a case of heat exhaustion — or the deadlier heat stroke. But whether you relish the dog days of summer or prefer the chilly confines of air conditioning, remember that the effects of heat and humidity can catch you by surprise. Take a few moments to get sun sensible and make sure the heat doesn’t sideline you from summer.
But aren’t these warnings really for people who insist on running a marathon in a heatwave?
Not according to a 2014 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, which found that extreme heat causes more deaths than any other weather-related dangers in the U.S. In fact, between 1999 and 2010, the Centers for Disease Control recorded 7,415 heat-related deaths. And things are only going to get hotter. The EPA expects heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense in the future, a trend that has already been noted in the last decade.
So what makes heat so dangerous?
Heat-related illnesses are all about the body’s ability to cool itself effectively through the evaporation of sweat. Because sweat doesn’t evaporate well in high heat and humidity people are always at risk of overheating and becoming ill.
According to the American Red Cross, you may be experiencing heat exhaustion if you start to sweat heavily, are cool and moist to the touch, have a fast weak heartbeat, quick shallow breathing and are pale. Other symptoms may include headache, nausea, vomiting, and feeling faint or fatigued.
If you are experiencing any combination of these symptoms you should immediately get into air conditioning, take a cool shower or at least find shade. Drink non-alcoholic, non-sugary liquids and have someone monitor your recovery.
Heat exhaustion can occur with any outdoor activity but can also develop over time in people who have had no relief from the heat, such as those who must sleep without air conditioning.
Heat stroke is even more dangerous and occurs when the body is no longer able to sweat and rapidly heats to the point of permanent damage or death. Symptoms include red, hot and dry skin, a rapid weak heartbeat, dizziness, headache, seizures and unconsciousness.
Heat stroke is an emergency and requires immediate medical assistance. If you suspect you or anyone around you has heat stroke, dial 9-1-1 but do not wait to act. Cool the person down as fast as possible by removing their outer clothing and immersing them up to their neck in cool water or spraying them with a hose. If this isn’t possible, cover them in ice or damp sheets, and/or fan them. If they are conscious, offer them sips of water.
Always remember that even mild signs of overheating, such as muscle cramps, are warnings that your body’s cooling system is not working efficiently. Ignore them at your peril. Heat stroke can arrive rapidly.
Sounds dire. How do I avoid getting into trouble?
Without doubt, strenuous physical activity in high temperatures risks heat stroke. But the tricky thing about heat and humidity is that if they are high enough, they can make you ill even if you are doing little more than your normal activities.
You know yourself best. Always listen to your own body. If you feel too hot, too thirsty or just too uncomfortable, don’t wait to see if you develop more definable symptoms; get cool and get a (non-alcoholic) drink.
Be aware that some are more susceptible to heat than others. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. But so are people who are overweight, have heart disease or other illnesses that affect blood flow. Having a sunburn, drinking alcohol, or being dehydrated also increase your risk, as do certain medications.
Whatever your risk factors, you can avoid heat-related illness by following these recommendations from the Red Cross and CDC:
- Drink plenty of water and don’t wait to get thirsty. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing. Dark colors absorb the sun’s rays.
- Keep to air conditioned spaces. Avoid being outside in the hottest part of the day and, if you are out, take it slow.
- Avoid outdoor festivities or parties.
- If you must work outside, take frequent breaks, hydrate often and don’t work alone.
- Check on family, friends and neighbors without air conditioning or who may be affected by the heat.
- Never leave children or pets alone in enclosed vehicles.
- Avoid exercise during the hottest times of the day.
- Don’t start a new outdoor exercise program or challenge during a heatwave.
- If you are already a regular exerciser, acclimate to the heat by reducing the intensity of your workouts until you are more accustomed to the heat. Take longer, more frequent breaks and hydrate every 20 minutes. Dress in net-type jerseys or light cotton.
That’s quite a laundry list. Anymore Don’ts?
Just two. Don’t measure yourself by those around you. People acclimatize, hydrate and condition at different rates. And then there is the small matter of those without any common sense — the mad dogs and Englishmen — don’t be one of those.