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Summer is here, and it has been a hot one! As heat waves simultaneously sweep through the United States and Europe, many places are experiencing record-high temperatures. This sweltering heat can turn a fun day outside into a dangerous (or even deadly) one. It is important to understand how to stay safe in the heat.

Tips for Staying Safe in the Heat

The heat can make for some exciting, adventure-filled days, but extreme heat can be dangerous. It is, for this reason, that proper precautions should be taken before and during exposure to heat. Staying safe in the heat is important for anyone who wants to enjoy the heat without incident.

Don’t overdress. Wearing too much (or too heavy) clothing can lead to heat-related illnesses on both the hottest and coldest of days. Wear an appropriate amount of clothing.

Drink fluids consistently prior to, during, and after your time in the heat. This works to prevent dehydration, and it also keeps you sweating which is one of the body’s natural cooling mechanisms.

Replenish your electrolytes. Electrolytes, such as magnesium, sodium, and potassium, are minerals that are used in chemical reactions within muscles. Sweat is high in sodium so it’s important to replenish electrolytes as you lose them.

Wear sunscreen. This will protect you from getting a sunburn which damages your skin and puts you at a higher risk for other heat-related illnesses.

Get acclimated to the heat. This will allow your body to experience heat (especially extreme heat) slowly rather than subjecting your body immediately to these harsh conditions.

Rest frequently. During extreme heat, it is important to rest frequently to allow your body time to recover and cool off. If possible, rest should be done in a cool place and be accompanied by cool fluids.

Following these guidelines will help you stay safe in the heat and prevent any heat-related illnesses. However, it is important to recognize heat-related illnesses and what to do when you suspect someone is suffering from one.

How to Recognize Heat-Related Illnesses

Heat-related illnesses raise your body temperature to dangerously high levels that upset the delicate balance within your body. This balance, known as homeostasis, helps to regulate the body’s internal functions so it remains at equilibrium. When your internal temperature gets too high, it can wreak havoc on your body and it can even lead to death. Heat-related illnesses range in symptoms and severity, but all should be taken seriously.

Heat Rash

Heat rash is the least severe heat-related illness, and it occurs when sweat is trapped under your skin by blocked pores. This causes small red bumps or blisters to appear on your skin that can be itchy, painful, or neither. The best way to remedy heat rash is to keep the skin cool and avoid sweating. I can be avoided by not overdressing (whether it be summer or winter) and not wearing tight clothes as they can irritate your skin.

Sunburn

Regardless of persistent efforts by medical professionals and organizations, many of us still end a sunny day looking like a lobster. By far the most common form of heat-related illness, sunburn is caused by excessive, unprotected exposure to the sun’s rays. Sunburns are characterized by red, hot skin that is oftentimes painful or itchy (or both); fever, chills, and nausea are also common with sunburns.

A sunburned man searches for something on a sunny, hot beach.

Treating a Sunburn

Stay out of the sun. It’s important to avoid the sun until your burn has had time to heal.

Cool the burn by taking a cool bath or applying a cool compress. Avoid freezing or ice-cold water and compresses as these can cause further damage to the skin.

Some creams or gels can help with healing. Aloe Vera gel (whether in a tube or from the plant) cools the skin and moisturizes it. Hydrocortisone can help to reduce inflammation under the skin.

Avoid applying oily substances like butter or petroleum jelly. These substances will trap the heat and make your burn (and the pain) much worse.

Drink water. Staying hydrated keeps your body from becoming dehydrated and your skin from drying out.

It is important to protect yourself from the sun by using sunscreen and wearing clothing that covers the skin. Be mindful of how long you are in the sun, it’s intensity, and your skin complexion as each plays a role in sunburn risk.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are short, painful muscle cramps that are likely the result of a lack of electrolytes in your system. Electrolytes are minerals like sodium, potassium, and magnesium that are important for chemical and electrical reaction in your muscles. Sweat is very high in sodium, so excessive sweating can result in depleted sodium level which can lead to cramps.

Treating Heat Cramps

The prevention and treatment of heat cramps are both fairly simple. In order to prevent them, it is important to remain hydrated and maintain healthy electrolyte-levels. This can easily be done by drinking a sports drink which is both water- and electrolyte-rich. Similarly, heat cramps can be treated by resting in a cool place and replenishing lost fluids and electrolytes. Again, this can be done by drinking a sports drink or other electrolyte-rich fluid.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body begins to overheat and can turn into heatstroke if left untreated. It is caused by the body’s inability to cool itself which can be a result of extreme heat, dehydration, alcohol consumption, or overdressing. Common symptoms of heat exhaustion are fatigue, heavy sweating, a rapid pulse, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and headache.

Treating Heat Exhaustion

If you are showing signs or symptoms of heat exhaustion, it is important that you get out of the sun and to a cool place, rest, and replenish your fluids and electrolytes.

Heatstroke

This is where the heat turns deadly. Heatstroke sets in when your body temperature exceeds 104F, and systems that are necessary for your body to function properly are disrupted.

Symptoms of heatstroke may include:

  • A temperature of 104 Fahrenheit or more
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Confusion, disorientation, or a lack of balance
  • Rapid pulse
  • Lack of sweating
  • Hot and/or dry skin

If you suspect someone is suffering from heatstroke, you should call 9-1-1.

Treating Heatstroke

Heatstroke is a serious medical condition, so understanding how to prevent and treat it is vital. It is the most severe progression of heat-related illness and should be taken very seriously.

If you suspect someone is suffering from heatstroke, you should:

Call 9-1-1 immediately. This ensures help will be on the way.

Move the person to a cool place for them to rest and recover.

Replenish fluids and electrolytes with water and/or sports drinks (if available).

Wet the person’s skin with cool water. This can be done by wetting the skin with a hose or immersing the body in a cool bath or shower.

Heatstroke is serious and life-threatening. The most important aspect of treatment is notifying emergency personnel by calling 9-1-1.

Understanding how to prevent heat-related illnesses and recognizing their warning signs are both very important for staying safe in the heat. Remember to always stay hydrated and wear sunscreen, and if you suspect someone may be suffering from a serious heat-related condition, call 9-1-1 immediately.

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