Sometimes it feels as though there are so many health hazards to be aware of during the hot summer months that it hardly seems worth it to step outside. Since that’s unrealistic, it’s good to be prepared when you do find yourself spending a considerable length of time outdoors. Let’s talk a bit about two similar but different afflictions caused by exposure to extreme summer heat: heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
First some basics. The CDC defines extreme heat as temperatures in the summertime that are much hotter and/or humid than average. When it’s humid or muggy outside, being outdoors can be really unbearable because these conditions can make it seem much hotter out.
Illnesses like heat stroke and heat exhaustion tend to occur during these periods of extreme heat because the body has difficulty cooling itself down. So while you may be drenched in sweat – the body’s typical mechanism for cooling itself – your internal temperature may not actually be going down.
Everyone is at risk of developing a heat-related illness, though older adults, the very young, the mentally ill, and those with chronic diseases are the most at risk. If you’re going to be particularly active outdoors, it’s important to watch out for signs of both illnesses, as they can quickly turn into a dangerous health situation.
Heat exhaustion is the “less serious” of the two illnesses, but should still be handled promptly if you notice any of the symptoms. A combination of several long days in the sun and insufficient hydration is enough to bring on symptoms such as heavy sweating, rapid breathing, and a fast, weak pulse. If you notice any of these symptoms, immediately seek some shade or some place cool, and rest and try to rehydrate. Heat exhaustion can actually give way to heat stroke if not managed properly, so if you don’t start to feel better within an hour, seek immediate medical attention.
Sometimes also called sunstroke, heat stroke can be life-threatening if not handled immediately. It can occur in two ways, exertional and non-exertional. Exertional heat stroke occurs after you’ve exerted yourself and your body can’t cool itself off fast enough (i.e., working or exercising outdoors in the heat for a long time), while non-exertional heat stroke can happen even when you’re not active but are still exposed to high temperatures over an extended period of time (i.e., sitting in a hot house or car with no air conditioning). This is life-threatening because your internal body temperature can rise to 104°F or higher within a matter of minutes, which can do damage to your organs and lead to death. Symptoms to look out for include dry skin, dizziness, a racing heartbeat, nausea, and confusion. In serious situations, someone might even lose consciousness or fall into a coma. It is necessary to seek immediate emergency medical attention if you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms of heat stroke.
Beating the Heat
Luckily, there are lots of good ways to prevent heat-related illnesses and the complications that can arise because of them:
- Stay hydrated – if you’re going to be outside, be sure to bring lots of water and drink it regularly. Avoid sugary beverages like soda, juice, and alcohol, as they can actually dehydrate you. If you don’t like drinking water plain, try flavoring it lightly with fresh fruit or cucumber slices.
- Take frequent breaks – head into the shade or some place cool and rest to allow your body temperature to readjust after long periods of working or exercising outdoors. Umbrellas and tents are great to bring along to the beach or sporting events for an easy escape from the sun if a cooled building is not around. You can escape to your car too if you have AC; try to park it somewhere in the shade or place a reflective sun shade in your windshield to help keep it a little cooler.
- Wear appropriate clothing – light-weight, light colored, and loose fitting is the way to go. Breathable fabrics like cotton are ideal because they won’t trap the heat. Shield the sun from your face by wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
- Stay inside during the hottest parts of the day – if you can manage it, limit your outdoor activity between the hours of 10am and 2pm. Instead, plan to do more when the sun is lower in the sky like in the early morning or early evening hours.