Keep Your Cool! Important Steps to Take to Avoid Heat-Related Illnesses

Patient Expert

Darn, it's hot outside! Like many others around the United States, I'm finding I'm sweltering in 100-plus temperatures when I step outside every afternoon. And morning isn't much better - we're already nearing 90 degrees and it's just barely 10 a.m. So what do you need to know about exercising when it's this hot? Here's a quick laundry list.

_Timing is everything! _ If possible, try to go early in the morning or late in the night when it isn't so hot. However, if you're walking dogs (like I often do), morning is better since the sidewalk pavement hasn't absorbed all the sunshine and isn't radiating tremendous heat onto my canine friends.

_Hydrate! _ It's important to continually consume liquids when you're out in the heat. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends drinking water or sports drinks, but avoiding tea, soda, coffee and alcohol, which can lead to dehydration. Whole reports that you can quench your thirst without adding extra calories through adding washed, sliced cucumbers, lemons, limes, kumquats, strawberries or mangos to pitchers of water. They also suggest fruit juice mixed with sparkling water. They recently posted a recipe for what is now my go-to drink (other than water) for the summer - a cranberry-grapefruit sparkler. Enjoy - and stay cool!

_Know the signs of heat-related maladies. _ There are several heat-related hazards to your health. These include:

  • Heat cramps. Dr. John Cunha of described heat cramps as "painful, brief muscle cramps that occur during exercise or work in a hot environment. Muscles may spasm or jerk involuntarily. Cramping may also be delayed and occur a few hours later." The cause of heat cramps is unknown. Those most at risk include infants and young children, individuals who work or exercise in a hot environment, the elderly, those who are drinking alcohol, as well as people who are taking medications that can impair the body's sweat and heat regulation system. Heat cramps should be taken seriously since they can be the early signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. To ease cramps, rest in a cool place and gently stretch the muscles. You also should drink water or sports drinks.
  • Dehydration. "In a healthy person, this water is replaced by drinking fluids and eating foods that contain water," the University of Maryland Medical Center website reports. "When a person becomes so sick with fever, diarrhea, or vomiting or if an individual is overexposed to the sun, dehydration occurs. This is caused when the body loses water content and essential body salts such as sodium, potassium, calcium bicarbonate and phosphate." Symptoms include thirst, less-frequent urination, dry skin, fatigue, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, dry mouth, dry mucous membranes, increased heart rate, and increased breathing. Children also may experience a dry mouth and tongue, no tears when crying, no wet diapers for more than three hours, sunken abdomen, sunken eyes and cheeks, high fever, listlessness, irritability, and skin that doesn't flatten when pinched and released. To avoid dehydration, you need to drink lots of fluids and make sure that you're consuming more than you are losing. Also consider drinking sports drinks. Young children and infants can benefit from drinking Pedialyte and similar solutions that help maintain electrolyte balance.
  • Heat exhaustion. The Mayo Clinic reports, "Heat exhaustion is a condition whose symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, a result of your body overheating." Heat exhaustion is caused by exposure to high temperatures (especially when combined with high humidity) and strenuous physical exercise. Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke if not promptly treated. Symptoms include cool, moist skin with goose bumps, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, weak but rapid pulse, low blood pressure when standing, muscle cramps, nausea, and headache. If you experience these symptoms, move to a cooler place, rest and drink cool water or sports drinks. If your symptoms don't improve or actually worsen within 60 minutes, contact your doctor. Also, the Mayo Clinic recommends you get immediate medical attention if your body temperature reaches 104 F or higher.
  • Heat Stroke. The University of Maryland Medical Center website states, "If a person becomes dehydrated and cannot sweat enough to cool their body, their internal temperature may rise to dangerously high levels, causing heat stroke." This illness is the most severe form of heat-related illness and is a life-threatening emergency. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness or fatigue, seizure, hot and dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, a high body temperature, loss of consciousness, rapid heartbeat, and hallucinations. To avoid heat stroke, drink plenty of fluids during outdoor activities. Wear lightweight, tightly woven, loose-fitting clothing in light colors. Wear a hat, sunglasses, and use an umbrella. Gradually increase the time you spend outdoors in order to get used to it. Take frequent breaks to grab water and mist yourself with a spray bottle. On days that are hot and humid, you should spend as much time indoors as possible.