Keep your cool: How to have fun this summer and avoid these 5 heat-related illnesses


by Barrett Curnutte, MD

Jul 13, 2023

For many of us, summer means a slower pace, backyard cookouts, pool parties and vacations with friends and family.

But too much fun in the sun can be unhealthy, particularly here in Texas where daily temperatures are regularly in the upper 90s—and higher. Already this summer, several cities have experienced record-breaking highs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses have increased across the state.

But the current heat wave doesn’t have to curtail your plans. If you know the signs of heat-related illnesses and how to treat them—and follow some tips to prevent them—you can keep your cool and stay healthy, even during a scorching Texas summer. Here’s how.

Spotting the warning signs of heat-related illnesses

Heat-related illnesses can range from mild to life-threatening. Here are the five of the most common problems tied to high temperatures and ways to treat them.

1. Dehydration

One of the primary risks associated with high heat is dehydration. Excessive sweating causes your body to lose water and crucial electrolytes—minerals in your blood like potassium and calcium—that are essential for proper bodily functions.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

Drinking more fluids like water or sports drinks, also called electrolyte drinks, can reverse mild dehydration. (Avoid alcohol, soda and energy drinks.) But if you’re severely dehydrated, get medical attention as soon as possible.

2. Heat cramps

Heat cramps are painful muscle contractions that typically happen during intense physical activity in hot conditions. They’re often caused by the loss of electrolytes through sweating and usually affect your arms, legs or abdomen.

Left untreated, heat cramps can progress to more serious heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

If you experience muscle cramps during hot weather, especially while you’re exercising or playing sports, stop immediately. Rest in a cool place and rehydrate with water or sports drinks.

3. Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion happens when the body overheats due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures or intense physical activity in hot conditions. Symptoms include:

  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

Without treatment, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke. If you or someone around you shows any of these symptoms, get to a cooler place and find medical help immediately. You also should drink plenty of fluids and rest.

4. Heat stroke

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. It happens when you get too hot, and it becomes hard for your body to cool down. Signs of heat stroke include:

  • A temperature above 103°F
  • Hot and dry skin (or profuse sweating in some cases)
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid or weak pulse

Prompt treatment is crucial to prevent organ damage or even death. While waiting for medical help, cool the person down as quickly as possible by moving them to a cool, shaded area, removing excess clothing, and applying cool water or ice packs.

5. Sunburn

Prolonged exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can lead to painful sunburns. Besides being painful, sunburns can increase the risk of skin cancer and accelerate skin aging.

Protect yourself by using broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, wearing protective clothing like long-sleeved, loose-fitting shirts, and staying in the shade during peak sun hours.

Most sunburns can be treated at home, but severe burns—a blistering burn covering 20% or more of your body—should be checked out by a healthcare provider.

Beating the heat

High temperatures don’t mean that you should spend your summer indoors in the air conditioning. These simple tips can help you safeguard yourself from heat-related illnesses and enjoy summertime activities.

  • Watch the weather. Check the forecast when making plans to be outdoors. Schedule activities during cooler hours, usually in the morning or after sunset. Consider postponing if there are heat warnings or advisories in your area. Apps from local television stations, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other news outlets and agencies can keep you up to date on the heat dangers in your area.
  • Keep an eye on the heat index, too. By factoring in the relative humidity with the air temperature, the heat index tells you how hot it feels to your body.
  • Acclimate gradually. If you're not used to high temperatures, take it slowly. Spend a little more time each day in the heat to give yourself time to adjust.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, even if you don't feel thirsty. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they can contribute to dehydration.
  • Adjust your exercise routine. You don’t have to abandon your workout during the summer. A few changes can help you stay fit and cool. Instead of hitting the gym during lunch, go in the evenings when it’s cooler. Runners may find it helps to start earlier or find a new route with lots of shade.
  • Seek shade. Limit your time outdoors during peak heat hours, typically between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. If you must be outside during that time, stay in the shade whenever possible and take frequent breaks in air-conditioned or well-ventilated areas.
  • Dress for the weather. Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing that allows air to flow around your body and helps reflect sunlight.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. Apply sunscreen with a high SPF before you go out, then reapply every couple of hours. You also can wear a wide-brimmed hat or use an umbrella to create your own shade. And don’t forget sunglasses. Your eyes need protection, too.

Don’t break a sweat

Some people—the elderly, young children, people with chronic health conditions, and those taking certain medications—are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Pay special attention to them during hot weather, ensuring they are drinking enough water and have a cool place to go.

Just because it’s hot out doesn’t mean you should miss out on the fun the season has to offer! By being aware of the signs of heat-related illnesses and knowing what to do when you see them, you can beat the Texas summer heat. So, grab your sunscreen and your water bottle and make unforgettable memories while staying cool and healthy.

About the Author

Dr. Barret Curnutte is division director of emergency medicine and an emergency medicine specialist at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – College Station.

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