It’s that time of year again — time to talk about weather-related health complications, like heat exhaustion and heatstroke. One look at the weather map shows that most of the country is baking, with heat records being shattered far and wide.
While it’s nice to be warm, triple-digit heat is an entirely different beast that can sicken and even kill within hours. For example, from 1979 to 2003, more people died from excessive heat than from natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods combined! Older people and the very young are especially at risk because they may not have the ability to regulate bodily temperatures.
This is why I urge you to protect yourself from heat-related illness, which can happen quickly without much warning. Please continue reading to learn how to avoid heat-related health issues, such as dehydration.It’s always easier to prevent a health condition than to deal with it after it occurs, as my patient Toni discovered.
How to Avoid Dehydration and Heat Exhaustion
Dehydration occurs when more water leaves your body than comes in. Our bodies are about 75 percent water, although some individuals have more and some have less.
We use water for just about every bodily function, including:
• Temperature regulation
• Elimination of waste materials
• Absorption of nutrients
We lose water for a number of reasons, including:
We breathe and sweat, which increases water loss.
Certain medications (such as diuretics) increase urination.
Elevated blood sugar may lead to excessive urination, which is the body’s way of removing sugar.
Ailments like food poisoning, which cause vomiting and/or diarrhea, can dehydrate an individual in a matter of hours.
Dehydration is bad enough. But combine it with a summer heat wave, and you have the perfect storm for heat exhaustion. Reduce your risk of this serious health hazard by knowing the symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion:
- Decrease in urine output or dark-colored urine (In a well-hydrated individual, urine is usually colorless or very pale yellow.)
- Dry mouth
- Muscle cramps
- Lightheadedness or feeling faint
- Low blood pressure when standing
- Heavy sweating or an inability to sweat despite the heat
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Heart palpitations or a rapid but weak pulse
- Pale, clammy skin, sometimes with goose bumps
I want to be very clear about one thing: Thirst is at the top of the list. Do not wait to become thirsty before drinking water! If you’re feeling thirsty, you are already dehydrated. That is not a good thing, even if the weather is cool. Among my patients, some are devoted water drinkers and others groan when I suggest they drink more water. “But then I’ll have to go to the bathroom more often,” they complain.
And that’s a bad thing why? Going to the bathroom is how we eliminate waste. Do you really want toxins and waste materials accumulating in your body just because you don’t want to be bothered going to the bathroom?
What’s the Right Amount of Water for You?
Forget about the “8 glasses of water a day” rule. I tell patients to drink the equivalent of half their weight in ounces of water daily. In other words, if you weigh 160 pounds, half that is 80 — so you should be drinking 80 ounces of water daily. Eighty ounces is ten 8-ounce glasses. Anything less shortchanges your entire body of a vitally important nutrient.
Furthermore, I encourage my patients to start each day by drinking a portion of their daily water allotment — about 22 ounces — first thing in the morning. You’ve just spent 7 or 8 hours sleeping, and during that time, breathing and perspiring have used a considerable amount of water. A cup of coffee may help you wake up, but it won’t do much to rehydrate you. Drinking water first helps replace what was lost during sleep.
And no, most beverages other than water don’t count.Caffeinated and carbonated drinks, for example, have a diuretic effect, irritating the bladder and creating the sensation of the need to urinate.
On the other hand, fruits and vegetables are a water source I wholeheartedly recommend.These foods contain high levels of water, along with plenty of valuable nutrients.
How to Handle the Heat?
Heat exhaustion is treatable, usually without a trip to the hospital. But that doesn’t mean it can be taken lightly. If you or someone you’re with is experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion, get out of the sun and the heat as fast as possible. Then take the following steps:
Sip plenty of water or other clear liquids, such as broth or sports drinks.
Eat something with a bit of salt, like pretzels or potato chips.
Loosen your clothing.
Lie down if you feel faint, and apply cold, damp towels or ice packs wrapped in towels to the forehead, feet, and other areas.
Take a cool shower or bath, if you’re able, or drench yourself with a garden hose — whatever it takes to cool off!
If heat exhaustion is not treated or if the treatment doesn’t work, the condition can easily escalate to heatstroke, a much more serious problem that requires emergency treatment. Heatstroke means the individual’s core temperature is at high-fever levels (104° or more). If it’s not reduced quickly, brain damage, a coma, or death may result.
Normally, people with heatstroke do not sweat, but they may appear very red and feel quite hot to the touch. Heatstroke can cause delirium, or the person can pass out. If in doubt about the exact nature of the heat-related illness, err on the side of caution, and either call 911 for the paramedics or go to the nearest emergency room.
Twelve Steps for How to Cool Off
1. Check the Forecast: Weekly weather forecasting can help you prepare for heat waves, and be sure to check the humidity, too. High humidity — above 60 percent — can make even moderately warm temperatures harder to handle. Trust me, I’m from Texas and know a thing or two about humidity.
In addition, remember that sweat is how your body cools off, but in a humid climate, sweat doesn’t evaporate quickly. So take it easy on humid days, even if the temperature isn’t in triple digits.
2. Be an Early Bird or Night Owl: To avoid peak heat, run errands, clean house, and exercise early or late in the day. If you must cook something requiring stovetop boiling or using the oven, try doing it at night or early in the morning when your house is likely to be cooler.
3. Cool It: If you don’t have air conditioning, take a few hours off during the worst heat of the day to visit a local air-conditioned mall, movie theatre, or library. Getting out of the heat for even a few hours will help stop the ongoing damage to your body caused by constant high temperatures.
4. Get Fan-cy: Buy a small personal battery-operated fan and extra batteries. If you’re in a single-family dwelling, consider buying a generator in case of a power failure.
5. Dress for Success: Wear loose, breathable clothing, such as cotton fabric. Tight clothes and synthetic fabrics can trap heat next to your skin and make it difficult for your body to cool itself.
6. Get Misty: Buy a small spray bottle, fill it with water, and use it to mist yourself. As water evaporates, it cools the skin. Misting is a good way to keep dogs cool, too.
7. Treat Your Feet: Use a bucket or dishpan for cooling footbaths. You may be surprised at how refreshing it is to soak your feet for 20 minutes or so in cool water. You can also wrap your feet in cold, damp towels for a similar effect.
8. Fill the Freezer: Have on hand a few bags of ice to pack in plastic bags or towels to help cool off. You can even set up a do-it-yourself cooling station with a bucket or bowl of ice and a fan behind it to blow the cold air in your direction.
9. Find a Filter: Purchase a high-quality water filter to reduce the amount of water you’re drinking from plastic containers. If plastic overheats, it leaches chemicals and toxins into the water. And if there’s one thing none of us needs, it’s more chemicals and toxins.
10. Get Ahead of Heat Waves: Establish a game plan for the hottest days and in the event of a power failure, especially if you do not have air conditioning or windows that open. Contact local agencies such as the Red Cross or area hospitals to find local cooling stations as well as available transportation.
11. Pick Up Some Produce: Fruits and vegetables contain 75 to 95 percent water, so having a smoothie and fruit for breakfast and a big salad for lunch or dinner are good ways to stay hydrated and nourish your body at the same time.
According to the American Dietetic Association, some of the most water-rich foods are the following:
|Lettuce (1½ cups)||95%|
|Watermelon (1½ cups)||92%|
|Broccoli (1½ cups)||91%|
|Grapefruit (1½ cups)||91%|
|Milk (1 cup)||89%|
|Orange juice (3/4 cup)||88%|
|Carrots (1½ cups)||87%|
|Yogurt (1 cup)||85%|
|Apple (one medium)||84%|
12. Distract Yourself: When my children were young and we were going to travel, I would fill carry-on bags with puzzles, books, games, and little craft projects to take their minds off the fact that we were not there yet. It was a very effective technique and one that I’ve found works for other situations, including heat waves and other bad-weather events.
Having something to occupy your mind can be a real blessing, preventing you from obsessing over things that can’t be controlled, like the weather. So buy or borrow some of those books you’ve been meaning to read, get DVDs of the films you missed last year, and get your hobby supplies out and ready to go. Staying indoors can be an excellent way to finally find the time to get some of the backlog off your to-do list!
By taking a few commonsense precautions and doing a bit of planning, you can enjoy the long, lazy days of summer without worrying about the heat or letting it affect your health. Just remember: Stay hydrated and as cool as possible, and arrange your schedule to avoid the peak-heat hours. Before you know it, it will be autumn, and heat waves will be a thing of the past.