The heat and humidity has arrived, and it’s not letting go. The 10-day forecast between now and Saturday, July 23, predicts four days of temps in the 90s and six in the high 80s.
Heat is a dangerous “disease” and can kill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the United States over 600 people die from heat waves.
Who is at risk
“Those at greatest risk for developing a heat-related illness are children under 5 and people 65 years of age and older, who have the least ability to regulate their body temperatures, as well as those who work outdoors for a living,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair and chief of Emergency Medicine at Baystate Medical Center.
Overweight people and others with chronic illnesses such as heart disease or high blood pressure, as well as those on certain medications, are also at high risk.
Extreme heat affects the body’s ability to safely regulate its temperature, often resulting in heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or heat cramps. Sweating is the body’s natural defense to cooling itself. However, when humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly and resulting in a rapid rise of body temperature.
Tips for keeping cool
As with many illnesses, the best defense is prevention, and Dr. Schmidt suggests the following tips to keep you safe in the high heat:
- Stay out of the heat – Avoid direct sunlight and strenuous activity outdoors. If possible, remain indoors. If you do not have air conditioning, consider visiting a location that does, such as the mall or a movie theater.
- Dress for the weather – Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and a broad-brimmed hat when outdoors. Stay away from polyester in favor of cotton and linens which are better at repelling the sun’s heat. Also, consider wearing sunglasses and putting on a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or greater.
- Drink plenty of liquids – Begin drinking before you go outside and, if exercising, drink one quart of liquid an hour to replace lost fluid. Avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol which can contribute to the loss of more body fluid. Also, if taking water pills or on a fluid restrictive diet, consult with your physician before increasing your liquid intake.
- Take it slow and easy with athletic activity and working outdoors – Postpone athletic activity during high heat and humidity. Limit outdoor activities to the morning and evening. Drinking sports beverages can replace lost salt and minerals when you sweat. However, those on low-salt diets should check with their doctor before drinking sports beverages. If you work outdoors, in addition to drinking plenty of liquids and dressing appropriately, pace yourself and take frequent short breaks in the shade.
- Eat smaller meals – Instead of the usual rule of eating three square meals a day, eat smaller meals more frequently on days when the sun turns up the heat. Also, avoid high-protein foods which can increase metabolic heat.
Warning signs of an oncoming heat-related illness could include excessive sweating, leg cramps, flushed skin, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, headache and rapid pulse. If these occur, Dr. Schmidt suggests getting out of the heat and drinking liquids. If you don’t feel better soon, call your doctor or visit your local emergency department.
“Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability and requires immediate emergency medical treatment,” said Dr. Schmidt about the serious condition which can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs.
Warning signs of heat stroke can vary, but may include the following: body temperature of 103º F or higher, dizziness, throbbing headache, nausea, confusion, a rapid, strong pulse, and in extremely critical cases, unconsciousness.
“In addition to taking care of yourself from the ill-effects of the heat, don’t forget to check on elderly relatives and neighbors several times a day to make sure they are safe and free from any signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” said Dr. Schmidt.
Kids in hot cars
Dr. Schmidt also reminds parents and caregivers that hot weather and vehicles can be a deadly combination for kids.
“Children are at serious risk for heat stroke when left alone even for a few minutes in a closed vehicle or even in one with the window left slightly open,” he said.
Sleeping in the heat
“Even for those who do not suffer from a sleep disorder, getting to sleep can be more of a challenge in New England during the summer months,” said Dr. Karin Johnson, director, Sleep Lab, Baystate Medical Center.
“There have been studies done on exactly what room temperatures are beneficial to our sleep. In general, many cite between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit as ideal with temperatures exceeding 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees Fahrenheit as disruptive to our much needed sleep,” said Dr. Johnson.
The National Sleep Foundation offers the following tips to help both young and old sleep better in uncomfortable, hot weather, especially when air conditioning isn’t an option:
- Use a fan to keep the air circulating.
- Close the blinds to keep out sunlight. Also, keep the windows closed if the temperature outside is much hotter than inside. Open the windows at night if the temperature is cooler outside than in your house.
- Heat rises. So, sleep downstairs in the blistering heat.
- If you do not have an air conditioner, and fans just aren’t doing the trick, consider asking family or friends who do have an air conditioner if you can stay with them for a few nights.
- Other options include sleeping outdoors under protection from mosquitoes and other insects, or during an extreme heatwave some communities may open cooling centers in schools or public places that are air-conditioned.
- Water is a great cooling agent and taking a cold shower or bath before bed may help.
- Wear light bedclothes and light pajamas. There are pajamas made from materials that wick away sweat, meaning the fabric pulls moisture from the body to the exterior of the clothing item where it can evaporate more easily.
For more information on Baystate Medical Center, visit baystatehealth.org/bmc.