Imagine that 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, head indoors and drink some water,” says Aadya Sharma, MD, a family medicine physician with Atlantic Health System. “These are all signs of heat exhaustion and, if you don’t allow your body to cool down, 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 hot and sticky summers, Dr. Sharma offers 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. But how much water is enough? “Always listen to your body,” Dr. Sharma says. “If you’re thirsty, your body is telling you that it’s a good time to drink.” She 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.
The outside air temperature is just one factor that affects your body on hot days. The other is 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, limit your outdoor activities, especially during the mid- to late-afternoon when the heat is more intense,” Dr. Sharma says.
3. Know the signs of heat-related illness.
Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related illness. If you experience muscle spasms in your abdomen, back, arms or legs, 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 of 103 or higher,” Dr. Sharma says. “If that happens, it’s an emergency. Call 9-1-1 right away.”
4. Develop a ‘cool-down’ strategy.
On the hottest days, move your workout indoors to avoid experiencing the symptoms of heat illness. Wear loose clothing and head coverings when outside and stay in the shade as much as possible. Dr. Sharma also says that using a cool mist spray is one of the fastest ways to get the heat off your body.
5. Take special cautions 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. People who are on prescription medications should, too. Dr. Sharma cautions, “Antihistamines, decongestants, and some prescription medications may dry you out and make you more susceptible to the heat.”
Be Proactive About Your Health
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