Straight Talk on Coping with Summer Heat

[avatar user=”dponieman” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=””]By: Diego Ponieman, M.D. M.P.H.[/avatar]

Summer heat is uncomfortable for all of us, but it can be dangerous as well. Did you know that more Americans die each year from heat-related causes than from all other natural disasters combined, according to the New York City Department of Health?

For many New Yorkers, summer means making the best of an unairconditioned apartment and descending to sweltering subway platforms. During a heat wave, New Yorkers at the greatest risk are older adults, individuals with chronic medical or mental health conditions, people who use drugs or drink heavily, and those who take certain medicines. Extreme heat kills more people by exacerbating existing chronic health conditions than through heat stroke. Tragically, during one particularly severe heat wave in 2005, more than 140 people died in New York City due to heat-related illnesses.

While we all think we know the basics of hot weather safety – put on sunscreen and drink lots of water – there’s much more you should do to stay safe when the temperature rises:

  • Avoid Sunburn. Avoid sun exposure; when you are outside, wear sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 and make sure to regularly reapply it. Sun damage from UV rays – which bounce off of surfaces like concrete – makes it harder for your body to regulate its temperature. In the long term, harmful rays increase the risk of skin cancer.
  • Stay Hydrated. Drink plenty of water or beverages with electrolytes, which help replenish the fluids in your body. Avoid drinks with alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.
  • Loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing helps your body stay cool. Darker colors and heavy fabric trap heat, making you feel even hotter. Wear a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun.
  • Avoid strenuous activity. If possible, refrain from strenuous physical activity – particularly during the hottest time of day in the afternoon.
  • Keep Cool. During a heat wave, the City of New York opens up public cooling centers – air-conditioned facilities where you can cool down. If you don’t have air conditioning, it can be hotter indoors than outdoors. You also can go to an air-conditioned library, museum, or movie theater for a few hours.

So, what are the symptoms of heat illness? For people who are exposed to high temperatures and humidity for too long, the body’s natural cooling system may fail, causing a heat-related illness that could be life threatening.

  • Heat Stroke. Also known as sunstroke, this is the most serious heat-related illness. Symptoms include a body temperature over 105° Fahrenheit, headache, rapid pulse, nausea, and a loss of consciousness. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and the person should be taken to emergency care immediately; it can be fatal.
  • Heat Exhaustion. Marked by heavy sweating, dizziness, nausea and even fainting, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke if not properly treated. Anyone with heat exhaustion should move into a cool area, rest, and drink fluids. If symptoms do not improve, seek medical help.
  • Heat Cramps. Typically caused by exercise or strenuous work in a hot environment, signs of heat cramps include muscle spasms, heavy sweating, and mild nausea. If experienced, move into a cool area and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Heat Rash. Symptoms include irritated skin that may resemble a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. Rarely serious, you should call your doctor if the rash doesn’t go away after a few days.

With the hottest weeks of the summer ahead of us, the most important thing New Yorkers can do is to talk with your health care provider. Taking care of yourself – eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, managing chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, avoiding tobacco and alcohol – are all key to having a safe and healthy summer!