Seven Tips For Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant

Heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke peak from July through August each year as the U.S. experiences its highest temperatures. 

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness, increased sweating, a rapid heart rate, muscle cramps, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. 

Without rapid intervention, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition that leads to hundreds of deaths in the U.S. each year.  Heatstroke symptoms include a high temperature (103 degrees F or higher), headache, confusion, flushed skin, and loss of consciousness. 

Here are seven steps to help you and your loved ones avoid a heat-related illness this summer.

1. Know the heat index.

Knowing the temperature forecast for a hot day isn’t as helpful as knowing the heat index. Most weather apps and websites include heat index information.

A heat index is calculated by factoring in the relative humidity with the actual air temperature, and it’s a more accurate indicator of how your body perceives the heat.  For instance, if the air temperature is 96 degrees F and the relative humidity is 65%, your body will experience a heat index of 121 degrees F.

2. Drink plenty of fluids.

Your body needs more fluids than usual on hot days because of water loss from sweating, and because water evaporates faster off hot skin.

Staying hydrated is one of the most effective ways to avoid a heat-related illness.  Drink plenty of water, and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, since these are diuretics that cause you to urinate more. 

It is also important to start drinking before you feel thirsty because thirst is a symptom of early dehydration. Pro-tip: Keep a water bottle handy at all times so drinking water becomes a habit and doesn’t feel like a task.

There’s no specific recommendation for the amount of water you “should” drink because everyone’s body and hydration needs are different. However, if you’re urinating at least every 4 hours and your urine is a pale yellow color, you’re likely drinking enough to avoid early dehydration.

3. Don’t leave anyone (including animals) in a hot car.

Hot car deaths, also called vehicular heat strokes, occur most commonly when an adult forgets a child in a hot car, or when a child wanders into an unattended car and can’t get out. 

The temperature inside a locked car can rise 20 degrees in just 10 minutes, quickly leading to heat exhaustion and heat stroke if someone is left inside.  It should also be noted that leaving the windows cracked does not help to lower the temperature inside the car.

So, never leave anyone (including animals) in a hot car.  And if a young child goes missing, quickly check the trunk and other interior spaces of nearby cars to make sure they’re not trapped inside. If you see a child or animal inside a car on a hot day, quickly look for parents and/or owners and call emergency personnel for assistance if the car cannot be opened right away. 

4. Avoid strenuous activities.

On hot days, even if you’re at rest, your body has to work harder to keep your temperature in a safe range.  If you engage in strenuous activities in the heat, your body has to work even harder to keep your major organs from overheating.  This can lead to rapid dehydration, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and organ failure. 

To stay healthy, avoid strenuous activities during the hottest hours of the day, stay in the shade as much as possible, wear proper clothing, take frequent breaks, and make sure you drink plenty of water.

5. Be aware of medication side effects.

It’s important to be aware of the side effects of any medications you’re taking. Certain medications can increase your sensitivity to sunlight (which is called photosensitivity), lower your blood pressure, increase your risk of fainting or make you more prone to dehydration and heat-related illnesses.

6. Take special precautions if you’re at high risk.

Certain populations -- including children, elderly people, and people with underlying health conditions --  are at a higher risk of experiencing heat-related illnesses than others.  It’s recommended that these people stay indoors as much as possible on hot days, use air conditioning, drink plenty of fluids, and seek urgent medical attention if they begin to experience any heat-related symptoms or an exacerbation of a pre-existing health condition.

7. Wear light, loose-fitting clothing.

Your skin is your largest organ, which means it’s a key player in keeping your body temperature within a safe range.  In hot weather, make sure to wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that allows your skin to sweat and cool properly. 

Also, if you wear a hat, make sure it allows for good ventilation since 50% of body heat is emitted from the scalp and face.


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