Published on 06/08/06

Keep the heat from turning deadly this summer

By Connie Crawley
University of Georgia

Watching a thermometer blow its top may be funny in a cartoon, but for many Georgians, that mercury-boiling heat is all too real, and it can be dangerous.

Adjusting to extreme temperatures takes time. Those who work in air-conditioned offices or homes all week may be hit hard by summer heat.

The body needs to adapt to levels of work and heat. As it does, it improves the stability of the circulatory system and the balance of salt in the body.

So, schedule your most active times outdoors in the early morning or very late, just before dark. Noon is often considered the hottest time, but it’s usually hottest in mid to late afternoon.

Intense heat leads to hyperthermia, with a range of symptoms including dizziness, rapid heartbeat, diarrhea, nausea, cramps, headache, intense weakness, breathing difficulty and mental changes. Another sign is an inability to sweat, which leads to a vicious cycle of worsening symptoms.

A person used to the heat has better control of his or her body temperature and heart rate and is able to sweat more.

We’re better prepared to handle intense heat in the South because most housing has air conditioning or at least fans for cooling. But many people are still at risk.

The best way to get adjusted is to take the heat in small doses. When the temperature climbs to 95 degrees:

• Restrict gardening to 40 minutes with a break of 20 minutes.

• Make sure you drink enough water to replace body fluid lost through sweating. Water or fruit juices replace fluids quickly.

• Take breaks in a shaded or air-conditioned place whenever possible.

• Check the temperature and humidity hourly.

• Design work so one task can be done in the sun and the next in a shady place.

• Wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothes.

• Check the label on your medications for sun exposure information. Many drugs, including alcohol and cold and allergy medications containing antihistamines, increase the risk of heat illness.

You can’t trust your senses when it comes to the body’s need for water. Just know you need to drink fluids regularly when it’s hot. And remember to watch out for others, especially the elderly and the very young.

Drinking more fluids is the best way to fight the deadly dehydrating effect of high heat. Thirst lags behind the body’s need for water. That’s especially true for older people, who may not be as conscious of thirst cues as younger adults. The very young are also at risk.

In general, use common sense. Find easy ways to lower at-risk people’s exposure to heat and raise their intake of fluids. Encourage them to drink water regularly. Plain, moderately cool water is best, although it can be flavored. However, caffeinated drinks can have a dehydrating effect.

(Connie Crawley is a Cooperative Extension nutritionist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.)

Connie Crawley is a nutrition and health specialist with University of Georgia Extension.