The recent heat wave across the US has affected people not accustomed to, or prepared to deal with, extreme heat, so I thought this would be a good time to discuss the basics of heat safety since, like me, many of you are outdoor enthusiasts. Some of this info may seem elementary, but too often we forget the basics. As an EMT, I treated lots of people for heat illness who knew better, but still pushed themselves too hard. Confession, I’m writing this post from the cool climate of Lake Tahoe where the highs barely reach the 80s. Please don’t hate me if you’re sweating your butt off!
Heat kills by overwhelming the body’s ability to cool itself. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), estimates over 6000 people visit emergency rooms each year due to heat-related illness. All are preventable, and they encourage the public to be aware of who is most at risk. It’s also important to understand how to avoid heat-related illnesses.
Who is at Risk?
Heat-related illness and death are a significant concern for infants and children up to 4 years old, the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, and those who are overweight or over-exert themselves. Susceptibility to heat-related illness is increased by medications for poor circulation, depression or insomnia.
- Stay Hydrated – During normal activity, a person loses up to a half-gallon of water per day. Strenuous activity, especially in high temperatures, increases fluid loss. The body can only absorb about one quart of fluid per hour, so it is important to drink copious amounts of fluid throughout the day, not just while you are in the heat. Light colored or clear urine output is a good indication of proper hydration.
- Wear the Right Clothes – Dress in loose, light-colored and lightweight clothing that covers most of your skin. Protect your head and face with a wide brimmed hat.
- Limit Sun Exposure – Plan outdoor activities for either early or late in the day, and attempt to stay in the shade as much as possible. Those at high-risk should try to remain indoors and in air conditioning. Libraries, indoor malls, museums and other large climate-controlled spaces are good destinations during the heat of the day if your home doesn’t have air-conditioning.
- Pace Yourself – Take frequent breaks when working or playing in the heat. Sudden increases in temperature are stressful for the body. Give yourself a couple of slow-paced days to acclimate after a sudden heat wave or traveling to a warmer climate.
- Replace Minerals and Salt – Drink juice or commercial fluid replacement beverages to replace minerals and salts lost through extended heat exposure and perspiration, but don’t add salt tablets unless directed by your doctor.
- Check on Those at Risk – Often those most at risk also have the hardest time getting to safety. Check on neighbors, friends and family members who may be at risk, at least twice per day.
- Drink Alcohol or Caffeine – Both are diuretics reducing fluid levels vital to the body’s temperature regulation. To avoid cramps, also limit sugary drinks.
- Eat Hot Foods and Heavy Meals – Heavy meals, especially those high in protein, raise your metabolism, adding heat to your body. Also, avoid hot soups and drinks. Mellon, salads and cold soups are excellent options.
- Leave Infants, Children or Pets in a Car – This seems logical, but sadly children and pets die each year from being left in hot vehicles with the windows closed. Place something you need, such as a briefcase or wallet, next to your child or pet to prevent leaving them behind inadvertently. It only takes a few minutes for the air temperature to reach dangerous levels inside a vehicle parked in summer heat.
- Leave Pets in the Sun – A Florida man was arrested last summer for leaving a dog chained in the sun without water – the dog did not survive. Make certain outdoor pets are in the shade and have access to plenty of water, or bring them inside.
The symptoms of heat exhaustion consist of heavy sweating, nausea, headache, weakness and paleness. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency. Its symptoms vary, including high body temperature (103˚F+), hot and dry skin (no sweating), throbbing headache, nausea, dizziness and unconsciousness.
If you observe symptoms of heat exhaustion or stroke, call for medical assistance, move the victim out of the sun, and try to cool the victim using cool wet towels or a fan.
I hope you found these tips helpful. For more information on the hydration aspects of heat safety, visit HydrationSummit.com where I have written a couple of more articles: Hydration at Extremes and Hydration for Adventurers over Fifty.