(July 2010) In a summer when temperatures are hitting the triple digits and breaking records, taking precautions is critical, especially if you care for children or an elderly loved one or have a chronic disease. The advice applies if you’re a healthy athlete in training, a yogi in a hot studio or a construction worker on an outdoor job.
When the temperatures are consistently in the 80s, 90s, and certainly when they’re over 100, it’s an issue for everybody,” says Yale Medical Group emergency physician Federico Vaca, MD, who is seeing an increase in heat-related complaints. “It’s also a relative problem, because if you have other medical conditions, and you are walking or running and the temperature is in the mid-80s, that could be too hot for you.”
Vaca is especially concerned about people with significant medical issues, such as cardiac problems, obesity, asthma or diabetes, as well as seniors and small children. “An elderly person locked out of the house can quickly run into trouble. If you leave a child in the car even for 10 minutes, with the window cracked, the temperature can rise very quickly and the child can succumb to the heat. Sadly, this happens every year across the country, and so it’s never safety to leave a child unattended in a vehicle.”
People suffer heat-related illnesses when their bodies are unable to regulate internal body temperature. In the worst cases, the body's temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. The sweating mechanism fails, the body is unable to cool down, and heat stroke occurs. You can prevent problems in the first place by minimizing exposure, Vaca says. “Stay well hydrated and out of the heat, in a cool and air-conditioned place. You really need to be able to keep your core body temperature under control.”
Stay vigilant: Follow your local weather news so that you can prepare for heat waves. Remember that you are at high risk if you have a problem with dehydration, fever, heart disease, mental illness, obesity, poor circulation or sunburn. Ask your doctor about risks posed by your medical conditions and medications you may be taking—prescriptions for depression, insomnia, poor circulation and other problems may make your especially vulnerable.
Adjust slowly: Limit your physical activity until you are accustomed to the warmer temperatures. Start slowly and pick up the pace gradually. Vaca, who has special expertise in sports medicine, says, “Trained athletes can be used to training in the heat, and but even for them it may take several days to weeks to acclimate to it. They drink more fluids and monitor their fluid losses closely to avoid problems. ‘Weekend warriors,’ who don’t usually go outside and aren’t used to exercise, regularly run into serious trouble.”
Limit outdoor activities: If possible, stay inside during the middle of the day, and restrict outdoor activities to the morning and evening hours when temperatures go down.
Stay cool: Use air conditioning at home, or spend time in such air-conditioned locations as grocery stores, malls or libraries, or find a swimming pool, or take a cool bath. When temperatures reach the 90s, electric fans are not as effective as air conditioners. In extreme temperatures, call your local department of public health to find out if a heat shelter is open. A few hours spent cooling down will help keep your body cool and keep you safe.
Drink frequently: Increase your intake of cool, nonalcoholic beverages, whether or not you are exercising, before you get thirsty. Drink small amounts frequently. Sports beverages can replace salt and minerals lost in sweating, but talk to your doctor if you are on a low-salt diet or taking salt tablets.
Dress appropriately: Wear comfortable lightweight, light-colored clothing even when you are indoors. Protect yourself from sunburn outdoors by applying sunscreen of SPF 30 minutes before going outdoors. Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.Use a buddy system: When working in the heat, monitor the condition of your co-workers and have someone do the same for you. If you have an elderly friend or loved one who is alone, check in with them.
Know the warning signs of heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is a mild form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. “The defining line between heat exhaustion and stroke is when mental status changes,” says Vaca. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following warning signs that may signal a trip to the emergency room: