You’re finishing up your afternoon walk on a scorching 90-degree day when you feel a little dizzy. You check your pulse. It’s faster than normal. You’re sweating, and you feel a cramp in your left leg. Should you head indoors?
Yes, says Alexander Sarenac, MD, an emergency medicine physician with Atlantic AdvancED Urgent Care in Mountain Lakes. “These are all signs of a health condition called heat exhaustion,” Sarenac says. “And if you don’t sip some water and cool off indoors real soon, it could lead to heat stroke, which can be life-threatening.”
While heat-related illnesses often sneak up on us unexpectedly, they can be prevented. To help you stay cool and safe during what has been one of North Jersey’s hottest and stickiest summers on record, Dr. Sarenac offers these five tips to avoid heat exhaustion and other related conditions:
1. Drink more water.
Most heat-related illnesses start because you’re not staying properly hydrated. How much water is enough? “Always follow your body,” Dr. Sarenac says. “If it’s telling you you’re thirsty, then it’s a good time to drink.” He recommends drinking either water or a combination of water and a low-sugar sports drink, which will replenish electrolytes in the body. Avoid alcohol, soda or sugary drinks which can dehydrate you.
2. Watch the heat index.
Outside air temperature is just one factor affecting your body on hot days. The other is the humidity. Combined, the temperature and humidity level create something called a heat index, or the “feels-like” temperature. “If a high heat index is in the forecast, it’s wise to limit outdoor activity, especially during the mid-to-late afternoon when heat is most intense,” Dr. Sarenac says.
3. Know the signs of heat-related illness.
Heat cramps, the mildest form of heat-related illness, includes muscle spasms in the abdomen, back, arms or legs. If they happen, stop all physical activity, grab a drink and wait for them to go away. Heat exhaustion may include heavy sweating, pale skin, a fast pulse, nausea or vomiting, tiredness, dizziness, headache and possibly fainting. If you experience these symptoms, move to a cool place and sip water. “Heat stroke, the most serious, can involve all these symptoms along with a body temperature 103 or higher,” Dr. Sarenac says. “If that happens, it’s an emergency. Call 911 right away.”
4. Develop a ‘cool-down’ strategy.
On the hottest days, move your workout indoors. When outside, wear loose clothing and head coverings. Stay in the shade as much as possible. Another tip: Use a cool mist spray. “It’s one of the fastest ways to get the heat off your body,” Dr. Sarenac says. If you feel any symptoms of heat illness, head inside immediately.
5. Take special caution if…
Infants, children up to age 4, people who are overweight and people ages 65 and older face the highest risk for heat-related illness and should take extra precautions. So too should people on prescription medications. “Antihistamines, decongestants, and some medications for heart conditions, hypertension and some behavioral health conditions may dry you out and make you more susceptible to the heat,” Dr. Saranec says.
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