The summer sun can be a treat, especially after a long winter. It makes for warm, relaxing days by the beach and pool. But there are days when you have to be outside in the sun and can’t cool down in the water. Whether you’re exercising or working outdoors, the sun can dehydrate you and cause you to overheat if you’re not diligent about staying hydrating and resting when necessary.
There are three types of heat-related syndromes ranging from mild to severe: heat cramps, the mildest form; heat exhaustion, which can be dangerous to certain groups of people; and heat stroke, which can be life-threatening. According to the Mayo Clinic, high temperatures, high humidity and strenuous physical activity create a perfect storm for heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke to develop if you’re not careful.
Identifying Heat Exhaustion
Heat-related illnesses occur when your body can’t replace the fluids that it’s lost from sweating. It can also occur when you sweat out most of your fluids and replace them by drinking liquids that don’t contain enough salt to replace what has been lost.
The body uses sweat to cool itself, so when you’ve lost enough fluids, your body can’t produce more sweat to cool you, causing you to overheat. When not treated in time, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, which can cause a heart attack or other problems in particularly vulnerable populations. Luckily, it’s easy to identify the symptoms of heat illness. The University of Maryland Medical Center advises those participating in outdoor activities to look out for:
- Pale, clammy skin
- Weak, rapid heart rate
- Fainting, dizziness and/or headache
- Muscle weakness
Who’s Most at Risk?
Certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing a heat illness. Pregnant women, children under five, the elderly, people with hypertension, obese or overweight people and those with heart disease are at greater risk for heat exhaustion for different reasons. For instance, children under the age of five have not finished developing a complete cooling system in their bodies, which puts them at a greater risk of overheating because they can’t regulate their internal temperatures as well. The elderly are more at risk because the ability to sense thirst decreases with age, and older people can forget to stay hydrated.
Certain medications, such as diuretics, can also interfere with your body’s ability to retain fluids. Ask your doctor if any medications you are taking affect your body’s ability to regulate its core temperature.
Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses
There are simple ways to keep your body from overheating. One of the most important methods is to stay hydrated. Contrary to what you might think, there’s no general guideline that’s universally accepted for how much water you need each day. How much you should drink depends on your age, sex, activity level and general health status. Even so, it’s critical to get enough fluid on a regular basis. Fluids, especially water, maintain the function of all organs in the body while moving nutrients from cell to cell. For this reason alone, it’s vital to remain hydrated when outdoors in the heat. Let thirst and urine color be your guide. If you’re thirsty or your pee is darker than lemonade, it’s time to drink up. Here are some other tips to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion:
- If you’re outside, exercising or working up a sweat, drink more than you normally would. Stick to water if you can, but limit sugar whenever possible.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages because alcohol dehydrates you.
- Drink water or sports drinks containing electrolytes before, during and after outdoor physical activity.
- Eat fruits and vegetables like celery, cucumbers, watermelon and radishes, which are high in water content and fiber.
- Exercise or work outdoors early in the morning or later in the evening when temperatures are cooler.
- Try to stay indoors in air conditioning when possible.
- Check with your doctor to make sure you aren’t taking any medications that could interfere with your body’s ability to retain fluids or regulate its temperature.
- Take an ice bath or place cool, damp towels on yourself to lower your body temperature if you feel yourself getting too warm.
If you do feel yourself overheating, rest in a cool, shady spot while drinking fluids and elevating your legs to increase blood flow to your heart.
When to see a Doctor
When left untreated, heat cramps can turn to heat exhaustion, which can lead to heatstroke. Along with the symptoms outlined earlier, there are other signs that can signify the onset of heatstroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests watching out for:
- Fever higher than 103F
- Lack of sweat, especially in hot temperatures
- Dizziness and/or loss of consciousness
- A fast, strong pulse
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible. You can beat the heat this summer by taking simple precautions, resting when you need to and staying properly hydrated.