Summer is finally here. However, with the sun comes the heat and humidity, which can be dangerous to anyone, not just the elderly or people with underlying medical conditions. Even an Olympic athlete needs about 2 to 3 weeks to become acclimatized to high heat and humidity.
Our bodies like to be at a set temperature. If it gets too hot outside; if we’re exerting ourselves and build up body heat that way; or, if we’re directly in the sun and so it heats us up, our bodies will try to get rid of that excess heat because if our core temperature goes up, body systems start to fail. You will start to feel unwell, hot and tired. You may pass out and even have a convulsion.
If your core temperature exceeds 40 degrees C for too long you can actually start to destroy your liver, kidneys and brain. There’s a medical adage: “It doesn’t take long to fry an egg or cook a neuron (a brain cell)”, and it’s unfortunately all too true.
The most effective way to cool down is by sweating. As the water evaporates off our skin it takes with it a lot of heat. Medications can interfere with sweating as can certain diseases. Also, to be able to sweat, you must drink enough. As humidity goes up, sweating is no longer as effective.
So what are you to do?
Try to avoid being active in the hottest part of the day. If you do have to be outdoors, pace yourself. Give yourself more time to do things. Take frequent breaks. Drink because you are going to sweat and even though as a cooling mechanism it’s no longer working well, if you allow yourself to get dehydrated, you’ll get much sicker much faster. Drink enough so that you’re able to urinate on a regular basis and your urine is almost clear.
Wear a sun hat. Use shade.
The other important protection is to work with someone. If you start to feel ill or look unwell, your colleague can help. If you’re with someone in the heat and they start to act confused, vomit, become very weak or dizzy, get them out of the sunlight, remove all unnecessary clothing and loosen anything that’s tight or constricting.
Fan them. Don’t give them something to eat or drink unless they’re completely conscious. Otherwise they risk vomiting and inadvertently aspirating into their lungs.
Call 911. Heat stroke is a true medical emergency and we need to cool the person down.
If you have no air conditioning at home, put a plate with water and ice cubes in front of a fan so it blows cool air. Go to a movie or the mall and take advantage of the air conditioning there. Even a few hours out of the heat helps.
The city will open special shelters when there is a heat wave to provide protection for people who have nowhere else to go. If you have a neighbour or an elderly or sick family member please check in on them during a heat wave. During a recent one in France, hundreds of elderly died because there was no one to look in on them.
Our summer is so short that it would be a crime not to enjoy every moment of it. The key is to be wise and take the necessary precautions.
Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.