- Written by Nancy J. Schaaf, RN Nancy J. Schaaf, RN
In all weather conditions, the body works to maintain a normal temperature of 98.6 degrees. When temperatures are extreme, like on a scorching summer day, it can be even more difficult for our bodies to maintain this ideal temperature.
One way the human body can typically regulate its temperature is through sweating. According to the International Hyperhidrosis Society, we have nearly 4 million sweat glands. The brain’s hypothalamus controls our body temperature by regulating sweat output and blood flow to the skin.
When it is hot, our body sweats to keep cool. Perspiration comes to the surface of our skin, and as it evaporates, we begin to feel cooler.
When it is humid, it is more difficult for the sweat on the surface of our skin to evaporate because the air is already saturated with moisture. That explains why people often say it is not the heat but the humidity that makes it unbearable to be outside on a hot day, though both play a role in the body’s overheating.
Continued sweating eventually leads to dehydration. However, more severe health risks are heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which can escalate rapidly, leading to delirium, organ damage, and even death. According to the National Safety Council, in 2019, 884 people died and 2,061 were injured in the U.S. from exposure to excessive heat.
Anyone can suffer from heat-related illness, but some people are at greater risk than others, including children, older adults, those working or exercising outside, and those with preexisting medical conditions, such as diabetes.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses excess water and salt, usually due to sweating. The American Red Cross advises that the warning signs can vary among individuals. Still, common symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, heavy sweating, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, and headache.
To treat heat exhaustion, move to a cool location, drink lots of water, and use cool compresses. Heat exhaustion can evolve into heatstroke, so treat this condition quickly.
Life-threatening heatstroke occurs when body temperature reaches at least 103 degrees, at which point our bodies lose the ability to regulate temperature.
According to the CDC, signs of heatstroke include an absence of sweating, rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, vomiting, flushed skin, throbbing headache, mental confusion, seizures, and extremely high body temperature.
Call 911 immediately if someone experiences these symptoms. As with heat exhaustion, a person experiencing heatstroke needs to be moved to a cooler place and given a bath of cool compresses until help arrives.
Knowing the symptoms and the proper response to these illnesses can save a life. Become familiar with the signs and symptoms of heat-related conditions, especially if caring for children, the elderly, or pets.
If you notice symptoms of heat-related illness, act quickly to help cool the victim down. If you or someone else is showing signs of a heat-related illness, stop the activity immediately, find a cool place to rest, hydrate, and seek medical attention if necessary.
Remember, heatstroke is a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated promptly.
Heat-Safety Tips from the CDC
- Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible.
- Don’t rely on a fan as your primary cooling source when it’s sweltering outside.
- Drink more water than usual, and don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink.
- Don’t use the stove or oven for cooking — it will make you and your house hotter.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
- Don’t engage in very strenuous activities, and get plenty of rest.
- Check on a friend, neighbor, or family member, especially the elderly, and have someone check on you.
Nancy J. Schaaf, a retired RN, worked as a school nurse, a nurse supervisor at a men’s prison, and a health educator. She earned her BSN at Edinboro University. She is a freelance writer whose health articles appear in magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. She can be reached at email@example.com.