Summer Heat Safety Tips

There’s no denying it, summer is an amazing time of year. The earth is in full bloom. The great outdoors calls to us, promising adventure and memories. As we head out to enjoy all that summer sunshine, let’s cover some of the heat hazards that can come into play during our outdoor fun.

Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke Hot Facts

Both heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be life-threatening. The more you are aware of the risks, symptoms, and prevention methods, the better the chance that you can avoid any life-threatening heat issues.

Sadly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 350 people die each year due to the effects of heat.

At what temperature should you become more diligent about guarding against heat stroke? 

Rising Mercury Markersheat stroke

Temperatures in the 90s and higher are dangerous. The higher the temperature and longer that temperature lasts, the more dangerous it becomes.

Spending too much time in the sun or heat can bring on heat exhaustion and heat stroke, especially during extremely hot weather or during excessively hot working conditions. And this can happen even indoors. Heat stroke is not exclusive to being outside in the sun. For example, think of those who work in commercial kitchens, factories, and warehouses or near heavy manufacturing equipment that releases even more heat into already sweltering weather conditions. They are each at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat waves are especially deadly. A heat wave is a period of excessive heat lasting two days or more, which can lead to illness. When we are exposed to heat-wave conditions for a lengthy amount of time, our most vulnerable populations are at greater risk. Higher humidity levels also make the effects of stifling heat even more harmful since it inhibits the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating.

Working and living in urban areas also adds to increased risk for heat related illnesses during a heat wave. Stagnant or poor air quality compounded with heat absorbing asphalt and concrete inhibits the opportunity for your body to cool itself.

The Signs of Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion develops after excessive and extensive sweating, causing our bodies to lose large amounts of water and salt. When these two are not replaced, our blood circulation declines which impacts the heart, brain, and lungs. When the humidity is high, sweat doesn’t evaporate so our bodies can’t properly cool themselves.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Pallor (skin color paler than what is usual for that individual)
  • Muscle cramps
  • Heavy sweating at first followed by no sweating at all
  • Flushed skin
  • Cool to the touch
  • Dizzy
  • Headache
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Fainting
  • Confusion or disoriented
  • Weakness or tiredness

While many of these seem to contradict each other, these signs represent a timeline. Once heat exhaustion takes over, the body begins to lose its ability to self-regulate temperature. So all kinds of things happen that relate to this inability to control temperature and lack of hydration.

Cooling Strategies

How to treat it if you see it? Your number one goal here is to reduce the body’s temperature, but you must do so in a controlled manner so you don’t send the body into shock. Remember that the body isn’t able to self-regulate temperature, whether it be to cool the body down or keep it from becoming too cold. Follow these tips to treat heat exhaustion:

  • Move the person to a cool place (shady or air-conditioned if possible) and into a comfortable position.
  • Encourage them to drink a half glass of water every 15 minutes.
  • Remove or loosen clothing and apply cool, wet cloths or water to cool them off. If you are still outside, use a garden hose to wet their skin, then fan air over them.
  • Do not dump cold water on the individual; wet several small areas at a time with cool, not cold, water.
  • Place covered ice or ice packs to the person’s neck, back, groin or armpits, where large blood vessels are close to the surface.
  • If you can safely do so, slowly immerse the person in cool (not cold) water, like a bathtub, shower or swimming pool. Always keep their head above water.
  • Call 9-1-1 if vomiting or loss of consciousness occurs. If left untreated, the sufferer’s condition may worsen as their body temperature will continue to rise, possibly leading to heat stroke.

Heat stroke can be deadly. The term “stroke” is often confusing because there is not a hemorrhage or blockage of blood flowing to the brain. But as with a stroke we typically think of, the brain is severely impaired and can become permanently injured during a heat stroke.

Before heat stroke occurs, people typically display signs of heat exhaustion. Heat stroke results from your body overheating after extended exposure to or physical exertion in high temperatures along with dehydration.

Signs of severe heat stroke include seizures, nausea, confusion, loss of consciousness or a coma.

Who is at risk for heat stroke or exhaustion?

Heat stroke especially impacts the old and young. The elderly and very young are most at risk for several reasons relating to their central nervous systems. Elderly who are on tight budgets are at an even higher risk. During a heat wave, they hesitate to turn their air conditioning on or up, or they don’t have access to air conditioning at all. Both age groups struggle with remaining fully hydrated, which also increases their risk.

Exertional heat stroke can also take its toll on healthy bodies during strenuous exercise, outdoor work, or sporting events in hot weather. Anyone working in hot weather conditions or exercising in the full heat of the day can get exertional heat stroke. Although it’s most likely to occur if you aren’t fully hydrated or aren’t acclimated with high temperatures, it can happen to anyone.

Underlying Health Conditions and Medications

Particular health conditions can put you at greater risk for heat stroke—heart, lung or kidney disease, epilepsy, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, alcoholism, or having a history of previous heat stroke. Check with your doctor to see if your existing health condition or any medications you take can impact how your body responds to extreme heat and muggy humidity.

Be aware that some medications will affect your body’s ability to stay cool and hydrated. Medications that narrow your blood vessels (vasoconstrictors), regulate your blood pressure by blocking adrenaline (beta blockers), rid your body of sodium and water (diuretics), or reduce psychiatric symptoms (antidepressants or antipsychotics) are ones to watch for. Stimulants for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and illegal stimulants such as amphetamines and cocaine also make you more vulnerable to heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency if left untreated, and can damage our key organs—the heart, brain, kidneys, and muscles. So don’t delay treatment, immediately call 9-1-1. Perform first aid and cooling strategies until emergency personnel arrive.

Top Tips for Staying Safe in the Heat

  1. Avoid hot, enclosed places, such as cars. NEVER leave children or pets unattended in a car where they can overheat quickly. When your car is parked, keep it locked to prevent a child from getting inside.
  2. Stay hydrated, up your cool fluid intake. Drink before you are thirsty. Make sure your family and pets are staying hydrated, too. Limit caffeine. Limit your alcohol intake, which impairs your body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
  3. Watch the heat, usually between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you have to be out in it, plan your physical activities for early morning or early evening when the days are cooler. Avoid high-energy activities like hiking, running and cycling during the heat of the day.
  4. Did you put on sunscreen? Don’t be deceived by cloud cover. Use sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) 30 and reapply every couple hours, more often if you are swimming or sweating. Grab a hat and sunglasses, too.
  5. Dress appropriately. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored, lightweight clothing.
  6. Choose cool locations for outings—movie theaters, shopping malls or libraries where you’ll find air-conditioning.
  7. At home, block out direct sun and heat. Draw curtains, shades, or blinds during the hottest part of the day. At night, open windows and use fans to cool and provide ventilation.

Summer fun awaits you. So get out and enjoy it. Just be on the lookout for signs of too much exposure to the sun and heat. Keep your cool and take proper treatment steps if you experience any of these symptoms or if you see them in someone else.

The earlier you seek help, treat the symptoms, and get in touch with a medical professional, if needed, the sooner you can start recovery and the better you’ll feel.

The advice here is never meant to substitute the advice of a medical professional.