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It’s hot, which shouldn’t be surprising in July. But this summer’s heat is breaking records around the world, and in the US this week a heat dome is plaguing the Southwest with soaring temperatures. The East Coast is expected to be steamy and parts of Southern California could hit 40 degrees by Saturday in what the National Weather Service has called a summer of « excessive » weather.
Sure, it’s summer and you have things to do outdoors, from parties to barbecues to mowing the lawn. We have it. But the heat can take a toll on your body and you need to plan ahead when the temperature rises to extremes. « Don’t overdo it, » he warns John Schumann, a primary care physician in Tulsa, Oklahoma. « The heat can wrap around you and punch you. »
And there are many misconceptions about the best ways to protect yourself, he warns David Eisenmanna UCLA doctor who is co-director of the UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions. Here are the mistakes to avoid to make sure you stay safe in the heat.
1. Too Much, Too Soon: You need to acclimate
When a heat wave hits, your body needs time to adjust, she says Niel Gandhia doctor at Houston Methodist Hospital: « You can’t do too much too soon. »
If you switch from spending most of your time in air conditioning to an outdoor activity in the sweltering heat, you may be caught off guard. Your body isn’t « acclimated to handle stress, » says Gandhi. AND about 650 people die every year from heat-related illnesses in the United States.
Fortunately, once acclimated, the body gets better at fending off heat-related illnesses. “Our bodies start sweating earlier at a lower body temperature and at a faster rate,” Eisenman explains. Also, the blood supply to the skin improves, which has the effect of cooling us down by carrying heat out of the core of the body. And your thirst increases, so you’re less likely to get dehydrated.
But this does not happen immediately. « It will happen over several days of exposure, » says Eisenman. So if you’re planning a hike, summer sightseeing, or any other extended exposure to the heat, plan on spending short periods in the heat each day in the days leading up to your outdoor adventure.
And note that kids acclimate much more slowly than adults, Eisenman says, so give them extra days to prepare.
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2. Failing to prehydrate (and rehydrate!)
Moisturize beforehand, she says Wafi Momin, a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Katy, Texas. « Have a glass of water or a sports drink before you step outside, » he says.
And take plenty of water with you and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to start drinking during an outdoor activity. « By the time you start feeling thirsty, you’re probably already 10 to 25 percent dehydrated, » says Gandhi.
Most people aren’t even hydrated enough on a normal day, notes Eisenman, so it’s easy to start out with a deficit on a hot day. His advice is to double the amount you would drink on a typical day. The best test of hydration is to check the color of your urine. « Make sure you pee frequently and that your urine is pale » — almost clear, says Eisenman.
Water is the best way to stay hydrated and it’s free! Sports drinks add electrolytes and can be helpful if you’re overheated or if you’re running a marathon or other endurance event, but they aren’t necessary when you’re simply trying to stay hydrated throughout the day, says Schumann, which doubles as a medical director for Oak Street Health, a chain of primary care clinics. In Tulsa, he says she, the last few weeks have seen 100-degree spells.
« In these times of heat, even though I pooh-pooh all the millennials carrying water bottles everywhere, kids — they’re right about that, » she says.
3. Don’t be the frog in the boiling pot (i.e. your car)
You may not realize how hot it is inside your car.
Cars heat up so fast even in moderate temperatures due to a « mini greenhouse effect, » Eisenman explains.
« The sun comes in through those windows, and then the heat gets bounced around and gets trapped inside. It turns into a different wavelength of heat and doesn’t come back out the windows, » he says. « And on a day with moderate temperatures, say 75 degrees outside, in 25 minutes it will become 100 degrees inside your car. »
Every year, about 50 children die when left in the car. So don’t underestimate the dangers, especially if you’re distracted finishing a phone call, Eisenman says. “Even with the air conditioner running, even with the windows broken, it can get really hot in there really fast,” he adds.
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4. Heat + (some) drugs don’t mix
Some medications can make people more vulnerable to heat, Momin explains.
Some heart medications like blood pressure medications, which millions of people take, are diuretics, he explains. « Those drugs are trying to flush fluid out of your body because of underlying heart problems, » she says. And if you then add heat, which also causes you to lose excessive amounts of fluids, « that can cause a very dangerous situation. »
Other types of drugs can also have this effect, Schumann says. These include anticholinergic drugs, anticonvulsants, bladder medications, and sedatives. « Many medicines work by dehydrating us, expelling excess fluids. Be careful! » she warns.
In general, older people are more vulnerable to heat, so if you’re older and taking these medications, take extra precautions to stay cool and hydrated. Ask your doctor if any of your medicines could be dehydrating.
5. Don’t ignore the early signs of heat-related illness
The first signs of overheating may not be too alarming: sweating, fatigue, dizziness and headaches. You may feel nauseous or lightheaded. But « those are the telltale signs of heat exhaustion creeping up, » Momin says.
« You could just turn it off, saying, you know, it’s hot and I’ve felt like this before, but the worst of symptoms can come on very quickly without you realizing it, » she says. « And all of a sudden, your body is heating up to a point where you really won’t be able to drink enough fluids in that moment to reverse what’s already happened. »
The symptoms of heat exhaustion can quickly become more severe. They can include muscle cramps, increased fatigue, and a fast heart rate. « You may start to get weak and gasp while exercising, » says Gandhi.
6. Know when to seek medical help
If you’re with someone who’s starting to show signs of heat-related illness, move the person to a cool place, give them water or a sports drink, and moisten their skin. You can also remove unnecessary clothing such as shoes, socks and jackets.
So, watch them. Their symptoms should start improving in about 30 minutes, Eisenman says. If they don’t improve at that time or if at any point they start to have more troubling symptomsseek medical assistance. “I think sometimes people wait too long to call 911,” Eisenman says.
« If their heartbeat is racing, if they’re breathing fast, if they seem utterly confused, these are all indicators that they’ve had more heat exposure than You can handle,” Eisenman says.
When heatstroke occurs, people may even lose consciousness or pass out – if this happens, seek medical attention immediately.
You Truly You want to avoid heatstroke: With heatstroke, your core body temperature can quickly rise to 103 to 105 degrees or more, says Gandhi. When that happens, « you can start experiencing organ damage pretty quickly. »
7. Wear loose, light clothing
If you spend time in the heat, what you wear matters. « I’d look for lighter colors because those tend to reflect heat rather than absorb heat compared to darker colors like blacks and navy blues, » Momin says. And stay away from tight clothing, which can block the airflow.
« Loose clothing allows heat to evaporate from the body more easily, » adds Eisenman.
8. Alcohol is a bad choice
If you’re at an outdoor party, hold out for that frozen margarita. Go for the mocktails instead. « Alcohol dehydrates you much faster » in hot weather, says Schumann.
If you’re determined to have something with a little kick in it, « drink a little water for every drink you have to avoid trouble, » she says. « If you end up having to pee a lot, it will be worth it. If you don’t, you could get yourself into trouble. »
« Alcohol is very problematic » if you’re outside in the heat, agrees Momin. Not only does it cause you to lose fluids, but « it can also impair your judgment. » And when that happens, you may miss signs of heat-related illness.