The heat of summer has quickly arrived, sending families outside to enjoy the outdoors. Before heading out, it's important to plan ahead according to the activity you are participating in. Heat illness and heat stroke can pose a serious and life-threatening risk to your health.
About 700 people die in the U.S. each year due to a heat-related illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Oftentimes, the outcome of heat illness is attributed to both the magnitude and duration of heat to which the body is exposed," says Graham Brant-Zawadzki, MD, an emergency physician and assistant fellowship director of the wilderness medicine program at University of Utah Health. "Prevention is paramount, but early recognition and treatment are key to treat heat illness."
There are different types of heat-related illnesses. The CDC lists these as heat rash, sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Too much exposure to the sun can turn your skin red and make you feel uncomfortable, causing a sunburn. If a sunburn blisters, you now have a deeper burn. Although both conditions can typically be treated at home, infection is possible. If either condition does not heal in a couple days, or if redness starts to spread and blisters turn from a clear fluid to a pus-filled fluid, you should seek medical attention.
- Heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is a mild form of heat-related illness. Symptoms associated with heat exhaustion include weakness, fatigue, thirst, headache, and vomiting. If you develop heat exhaustion, this is a red flag that your body needs to take a break and cool down. Experts at U of U Health advise taking a break by finding shade, dousing your head with water, and wetting your skin.
- Heat stroke
If your body progresses and continues to heat up, you can develop heat stroke. "The main symptom to watch for is a change in mental status or cognition, such as someone acting confused, tired, or lethargic," says Jeffrey Lane, MD, a wilderness medicine fellow at U of U Health. A person who develops heat stroke could even experience a seizure or coma. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency and associated with a high mortality rate. Call 911 and do whatever you can to cool the person immediately if a person is experiencing heat stroke.
Plan Ahead With These Tips
You can still recreate in the heat, but experts at U of U Health say it's important to plan ahead. You can use these tips as a guide:
The amount of water you need depends on the activity, how long you are in the sun, and your fitness level. If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. At this time, your body needs to take a break and cool off.
- Bring plenty of water for the activity you are doing.
- Drink water regularly, every 15-20 minutes.
- Drink water 1-2 hours before and after recreating.
- Sports drinks with electrolytes and salty snacks are smart to bring.
Shelter from the sun
Limit the amount of time you spend in the sun. Access to shade is important to consider when choosing an activity in the heat. Shade allows your body time to cool off.
- Take breaks out of direct sunlight.
- Plan activities somewhere with natural foliage.
- Bring a tarp, canopy, or sunshade if your activity does not provide natural shade.
Protect your skin
Your body can become a climate test to heat. As the summer goes on, your body becomes more accustomed to the heat. Protecting your skin from the sun will help your body stay cool.
- Cover your skin from the sun by wearing a light, long-sleeve shirt instead of a tank top and replace your shorts with pants.
- Wear and reapply sunscreen frequently. Don't forget to bring plenty with you.
When outside in the heat, your body is burning more calories. As you sweat, your body is not only losing water but is also losing salt. Avoid alcohol and replenish your body with foods high in electrolytes, such as:
- Nuts and seeds
- Salty foods
Heat-related illnesses are preventable. If you plan to spend time outdoors in the heat, start drinking water right away. Plan your supplies—and bring plenty of extra supplies. If someone is experiencing a heat stroke, call 911 right away.