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How to stay safe in the summer heat

Summer is here, and the humidity and temperatures are soaring. While you shouldn’t let warm weather keep you cooped up inside, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones when the temperatures rise.

Lacey Hutchinson, D.O., a family medicine physician at Piedmont, shares what you need to know about heat-related illness and prevention.

Types of heat illnesses

If the heat index is above 91 degrees, you should be especially vigilant about heat safety. Hot weather can lead to conditions like:

  • Heat cramps. Heat cramps can develop during intense exercise in hot temperatures. They typically occur in the arms, legs and abdomen.
  • Heat rash. Most common in children, heat rash is a form of skin irritation that develops from sweating.
  • Heat exhaustion. A precursor to heat stroke, heat exhaustion can be caused by dehydration and spending excessive time in high temperatures.
  • Heat stroke. This occurs when the body temperature exceeds 104 degrees. Heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency and can lead to brain damage, organ failure or even death.

Who is most at risk for heat illness?

“Athletes, military personnel and outdoor laborers – such as farmers, construction workers, firefighters and traffic enforcement – are at greatest risk,” says Dr. Hutchinson.

Children younger than 4, adults over age 65, people with obesity and people on certain medications (including blood pressure medications, antihistamines, antipsychotics and tranquilizers) or illegal drugs (like cocaine and amphetamines) are also more likely to develop heat illness.

How to protect yourself during hot weather

Dr. Hutchinson recommends the following ways to stay safe in the heat:

  • Acclimatization. “It is important to allow your body to adjust to certain temperatures in smaller time increments when possible, which allows better thermoregulation – body temperature control – and avoidance of heat-related illnesses,” she explains. For example, if you like to garden in the summer, start with just 10 to 15 minutes at a time and gradually work your way up to longer durations. If you aren’t used to the heat and go from an air-conditioned house to two hours in 90-degree weather, you could set yourself up for heat illness.   
  • Hydration. Drinking water and sports drinks with electrolytes can help replace the water the body loses while sweating.
  • Appropriate clothing. “Try to wear loose-fitting, light-colored, cotton clothing,” she says. In addition to cotton, natural fiber fabrics like linen are more breathable than synthetic fabrics like polyester.
  • Timing. Dr. Hutchinson recommends avoiding outdoor activities during periods of extreme heat, typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Instead, try to plan activities for the early morning or late evening.
  • Wear sunscreen. Getting a sunburn can disrupt your body’s ability to cool itself, so wear a broad-spectrum SPF of at least 30 and reapply every two hours or immediately after sweating or swimming.
  • Take breaks. Stay in the shade whenever possible and take breaks to hydrate. Athletes should take frequent breaks to rest.
  • Never leave children or pets unattended in a parked car. Even with the windows cracked, a car’s interior temperature can increase 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. When you’re not in the car, keep it locked so children can’t get inside.
  • Stick with a family member or friend. If you are alone and develop a heat-related illness, it can be difficult to seek help. Whether you plan to play a sport, go for a hike or do yardwork, make sure you have a buddy with you or that someone knows where you are and when you plan to return.

Signs of heat-related illness

Dr. Hutchinson says you should watch for the following signs of heat illness:

  • Mild heat-related symptoms: Extremity (arm and leg) swelling, facial flushing, muscle cramps/spasms, or a rash, primarily on the neck, upper extremities or groin
  • Moderate symptoms: Lightheadedness, dizziness or brief episodes of loss of consciousness
  • Severe symptoms: Altered mental status (confusion or disorientation), seizure, hyperventilation, fast heart rate or low blood pressure

What to do if you or a loved one has heat illness symptoms

If someone exhibits any of the above symptoms of heat illness, Dr. Hutchinson says you should immediately:

  • Bring them indoors or to a shaded area
  • Elevate their legs
  • Remove excess layers of clothing to help moisture evaporate
  • Give them water
  • Allow them to rest

“With more severe symptoms, I recommend taking them to the emergency department for evaluation to ensure hydration, circulation, and airway issues improve,” she adds.

You should call 911 or seek immediate medical care at your nearest emergency department if you or a loved one experiences:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure activity
  • Trouble breathing
  • Vital signs changing (fast heart rate or low blood pressure/weak pulse)

Dr. Hutchinson practices at Piedmont Physicians East Paces Buckhead Family Practice, located at 371 East Paces Ferry Road Northeast, Suite 300, Atlanta, GA 30305. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Hutchinson or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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