As New York and the East Coast cool down a bit from a record heat wave, everyone is ready for a break. But summer is here for awhile so you may still be at risk for heat-related illnesses such as heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and, most seriously, heatstroke. Why is heat such a problem for our bodies? And what’s the best way to handle very hot weather?
When the air temperature rises, your body starts to warm up as well. To maintain an internal temperature of 98.6ËšF (37ËšC), the body pumps more blood to the skin and sweats, both of which helps cool it down. But when temperatures stay very hot, your body absorbs more heat than it can lose and its internal temperature begins to rise. A rise in body temperature of more than 1ËšC (about 2ËšF) leads to heat illnesses, including heat edema, rashes, cramps, heat exhaustion, and eventually heat stroke and hyperthermia, which require immediate medical attention.
Sustained high temperatures are especially dangerous for children under four, the elderly, those with chronic disease and mental illness, and the overweight, whose bodies are less efficient at cooling. At 95Ëš to 104ËšF we exceed our heat tolerance limit and our body temperature rises. High humidity makes sweating less effective, even if you are drinking plenty of fluids. Men are slightly more at risk of dehydration than similar-sized women because they sweat more, although generally women are somewhat less heat tolerant than men.
Americans’ busy lifestyles leave little room for coping with heat the way people do in other countries where very high temperatures are common. We want to work and exercise the way we usually do, instead of slowing down during the hottest part of the day and taking a siesta. Air conditioning is critical for people at risk, but allows those of us who are healthy to keep pushing ourselves.
Safety Tips: If you want to exercise or work outdoors, do so in the early morning, then stay out of the sun later in the day, as sunshine raises the body’s temperature quickly. Avoid drinks with either alcohol or caffeine, which dehydrate the body, and eat smaller, meatless meals to keep digestion from raising your internal temperature. Drink plenty of water and drinks with electrolytes to replace essential salts lost during sweating. Never leave children or animals in a parked car—even for a minute.
Signs of heatstroke: call 911 or seek immediate medical attention if you suspect you or someone else is in danger of heatstroke. Get victim to cool shady area and cool with water while waiting. The Centers for Disease Control lists these as some of the signs of heatstroke, see their website for more information:
- Fainting or dizziness
- Body temperature over 103Ëš
- Behavior: mental confusion, grouchy, staggering, delirium
- Lack of sweating despite the heat
- Throbbing headache
When the heat turns up, it’s time to slow down. The heat wave won’t burn you if you cool it – kick back in the shade and take a sip from that glass of water. Mother nature is demanding a time-out.
- Rebecca Taggart
The information in this article is not intended as a medical diagnosis or advice.