Protect Yourself from Heat-Related Illness
Exercising or working in warm weather or in a hot environment such as a steamy gym can challenge your body’s natural cooling system and put you at increased risk of a heat emergency which can lead to more than just discomfort and fatigue. Heat emergencies can lead to serious illness and in extreme cases prove fatal. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that in an average year, 658 people succumb to heat-related illness.
The three stages of heat emergencies include:
- Heat cramps: Muscle cramps, usually in the legs or stomach (caused by loss of salt from sweating). This may be the first sign of overheating.
- Heat exhaustion: Heavy sweating, cold and clammy skin, nausea and vomiting.
- Heatstroke: When the body temperature rises above 104°F (40°C). Heatstroke is a life-threatening condition.
“Although heatstroke is the most dangerous, each of the stages can be serious, so it’s important to know the risk factors, the signs and most importantly, how and when to act,” says Kenneth Patton DO, Medical Director of the Emergency Department at TriHealth’s Bethesda North Hospital.
Children, older adults, and obese people have a higher risk for these illnesses. People taking certain medicines and people with heart disease also have a higher risk. However, even a top athlete in superb condition can get heat illness.
Know the Signs and Take Action
The early warning signs of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Muscle cramps
Later signs may include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Cool, moist skin
- Dark urine
“If you start to have signs of a heat emergency, immediately stop exercising, get into the shade or cool environment, remove extra layers of clothing and drink plenty of fluid,” Dr. Patton says. “If you do not feel better, contact your health care provider.”
If you or somebody nearby experiences any of the signs of heatstroke, Dr. Patton urges you to immediately call 911.
Signs of heatstroke include:
- Fever (over 104°F [40°C])
- Red, hot, dry skin
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Rapid, weak pulse
- Irrational behavior
- Extreme confusion
- Loss of consciousness
You can prevent or reduce the risk of heat-related illness from exercise or working in the heat by following these tips:
- Drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after your workout - even if you do not feel thirsty. You can tell you are getting enough if your urine is light or very pale yellow.
- Do not drink alcohol, caffeine, or drinks with a lot of sugar, such as soda which cause you to lose fluids.
- Water is your best choice for less-intense workouts. If you will be exercising for a couple of hours, you may want to choose a sports drink to replace salts and minerals as well as fluids. Choose lower-calorie options with less sugar.
- Make sure the water or sports drinks are cool, but not too cold. Very cold drinks may cause stomach cramps.
- Limit your training on very hot days. Try training in early morning or later at night.
- Choose the right clothing for your activity. Lighter colors and wicking fabrics are good choices.
- Protect yourself from direct sun with sunglasses and a hat. Apply a sunscreen rated at SPF 30 or higher.
- Rest often in shady areas or try to stay on the shady side of a walking or hiking trail.
- Do not take salt tablets. They can increase your risk for dehydration.
Last Updated: June 21, 2018