No one really knows how many people suffer heat-related illnesses each year because many cases go unreported. Beating the heat shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially for elderly people, children and people with chronic health conditions. In this post, Jeff Wang, MD, a family and sports medicine physician at IU Health Arnett Physicians, shares simple precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses.
Give the body an adjustment period.
Adjusting to seasonal temperature and humidity changes can take seven to 10 days under the best circumstances. Whether you’re an elite athlete, a casual runner or an outdoor gardener, Wang says it’s best to give the body a few days of transition outdoors before exerting yourself at 100 percent your normal capacity. Spraying the body down with water, staying out of direct sun from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and wearing loose, light-colored clothing are smart ways to minimize the effects of heat.
Old thinking encouraged everyone to drink eight glasses of water a day or until your urine was clear for proper hydration. That’s changed in recent years. “Currently, expert opinion is to drink until you aren’t thirsty,” Wang says. Heat exhaustion can occur very quickly when you aren’t sufficiently hydrated.
Be aware of symptoms.
“If you develop symptoms like blurred vision, weakness and confusion, consider it a medical emergency,” Wang says. Those are signs that your body is so overheated you could suffer a heat stroke. Another major warning sign is when the body remains hot, but sweating stops. Seek immediate treatment and medical care, which initially involves ice baths and cold showers to lower body temperature.
Consider your age and health conditions.
Elderly people and those with chronic health conditions should be especially cautious about being outdoors in heat and humidity. If you are already prone to swelling due to other health issues, Wang says you can easily develop heat edema—swelling that occurs when blood vessels dilate. To relieve swelling and heat edema, elevate the legs, wear compression hose and stay out of the heat. People taking medications that cause increased urination should take extra caution to stay hydrated. Certain blood pressure medicines are good examples of that.
Be vigilant about kids.
“We used to think kids were at greater risk in the heat because they don’t sweat as much as adults,” Wang says. Current medical literature suggests they—and the adults watching them—simply don’t recognize when they are getting overheated. “They can get into trouble quickly unless there’s an adult there to encourage them to take breaks and rehydrate,” he says.
Be wary about moisture-wicking clothing.
Sweating is normal and necessary. “If you have any history of heat illnesses or haven’t yet acclimated to hot weather, moisture wicking clothing can be a problem because it prevents the evaporation of sweat from the skin, which is the body’s primary method of cooling itself,” Wang says.
An SPF factor of 30 provides all the protection that’s needed. “Realistically, there’s no clear advantage to higher SPF factors,” Wang says. “The important thing is to reapply often, about every two hours.”
Athletes, beware of heat-related muscle cramps.
If you know you are prone to cramping, be sure to hydrate with a sports drink that replaces those electrolytes,” Wang said. Some athletes replace sodium with tablets or by adding a small amount of salt to water.