While summer means a return to your favorite sports and outdoor activities, prolonged exposure to the season’s heat and humidity also increases the likelihood of experiencing a variety of heat-related illnesses. However, equipped with some basic knowledge of risk factors, symptoms and precautionary tactics, you can safely enjoy the best summer has to offer.
What is heat-related illness and why does it occur?
When you exercise or work outdoors in the summer heat, your body temperature rises. Fortunately, your body also springs into action to try to maintain its normal temperature by transferring that heat through sweating and blood flow to the skin. Heat-related illnesses occur when you can no longer transfer enough heat to stay cool. The result can be:
- Heat exhaustion (heat prostration)—generally develops when a person does not drink enough liquids to replace lost fluids
- Heat cramps—occur in muscles after exercise because sweating causes the body to lose water, salt, and electrolytes
- Heatstroke (sunstroke)—occurs when the body fails to regulate its own temperature and body temperature continues to rise, often to 105°F or higher. Heatstroke is a medical emergency. Even with immediate treatment, it can be life-threatening or cause serious long-term problems.
Obviously, the main risk factors for heat-related illnesses are heat and humidity. But other factors can cause or worsen these conditions:
- Dehydration—alcohol increases this risk
- Wearing improper attire—dark, non-breathable clothing
- Some medications—including those for high blood pressure and depression. Ask your doctor for advice about hot-weather activity and your risk of getting a heat-related illness.
- Being sick—especially if you have a fever
- Age—people younger than 16 years of age or older than 65 are at increased risk of heat illness due to their inability to sweat effectively
How to avoid heat-related illness
Most heat-related illnesses can be prevented by keeping your body cool and avoiding dehydration. Consider acclimating to the heat by gradually increasing the amount of time you exercise in the heat over a period of 10-14 days. Wear light-colored clothing and exercise in the early morning or evening to avoid high intensity sun periods (10 a.m.-2 p.m.). Use caution when participating in outdoor activities in temperatures above 80°F and extreme caution when temperatures exceed 90°F. To help prevent dehydration:
- Drink 20 ounces of water/sports drink, 1-2 hours before activity. You may add another 10 ounces 15-20 minutes prior to activity.
- During activity, drink 10 ounces every 15-20 minutes or when thirsty
- Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks, including soda
- For every pound lost during activity, drink 20 ounces of water/sport drink
When to take action
If you experience any of these symptoms, get out of the heat immediately:
- Excessive shortness of breath
- Involuntary muscle contractions/cramps
- Elevated core temperature (rectal) above 104°F
- Mental status change including confusion, irritability, lack of coordination
Rest and begin to hydrate with an electrolyte solution (Gatorade or other sports drink, commercial electrolyte solution). For cramping, try passive stretching, or using an outside force (leaning into a wall, having a partner push you into a deeper stretch). If your symptoms don’t begin to improve, call 9-1-1 and submerge in cold water. Always seeks medical attention if you have any concerns. Heat-related illnesses can be medical emergencies.
Armed with this information and a healthy dose of common sense, you’re off and running to safe and enjoyable summer fun. Before engaging in any exercise or physical activity, especially in heat and humidity, it’s always important to touch base with your doctor.
Go to LGHealthPhysicians.org/sports to learn more about LG Health Physicians Sports Medicine or schedule an appointment.