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Let's Beat the Heat, Baltimore: Preventing Heat-related Illnesses

By Angelica Mansfield

Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service

Maryland summer has arrived and is here to stay. The temperatures in Maryland reached into the upper 90s with heat indexes of over 100 degrees last week. Baltimore bore the brunt of the heat wave, with average temperatures soaring to 99°F during the daylight hours and little relief at night. Unfortunately, Baltimore had already seen its first heat-related death in early June. With all this heat, it’s crucial to learn how to handle the heat as we make our way through the depths of late July and August.

The human body has evolved with unique and spectacular ways to regulate body temperature. In the cold, we most obviously shiver to warm up. Behind the scenes, your brain sends messages to your body to slow down, including to your heart. In the heat, the body sweats. Not only does it sweat, but the heat from your body actually vaporizes that sweat, cooling down your body to a more reasonable temperature. Also, your blood vessels dilate and bring more blood to the surface of your skin to cool down. 

Unfortunately, not all people can handle heat the same way. It would be great if all of these functions worked exactly as they were supposed to. However, in the era of high-tech medicinal treatments, a huge amount of medications, physical conditions, and even caffeine prevents your body’s ability to cool down under the sun. 

This inability to cool down is called heat intolerance, or hypersensitivity to heat. Allergy, blood pressure, and decongestant medications are the most common medications that increase heat intolerance. Allergy medicine prevents sweating. Blood pressure medication also prevents sweating in addition to reducing blood flow, and decongestants increase muscle activity, which increases your body temperatures. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your reaction to heat while on medication to ensure you stay safe during the hot and humid Baltimore summer. 

An even more common cause of heat intolerance is caffeine. Every cup of coffee or tea you drink, even iced, increases your heart rate and speeds up your metabolism. This causes your body temperature to rise and leads to heat intolerance. 

Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service

While many of us know how uncomfortable sweating can be, heat intolerance often results in dangerous heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is characterized by muscle weakness, sudden and excessive sweating, nausea, vomiting, and even loss of consciousness. Heat stroke occurs when your body reaches a temperature of over 103 degrees fahrenheit and requires immediate medical attention. 

In order to prevent these life-threatening illnesses, you can remember these three most important tips:

  • Stay cool: whenever possible, stay inside an air conditioned building. This is the most effective way to prevent heat-related illnesses. If going outside, be sure to drink lots of water, use cooling devices (i.e fans, misters, cold/cooling towels) if available, and stay in the shade (or create your own with an umbrella)
  • Stay hydrated: drinking enough water to replenish the sweat that has left your body is crucial to avoid dehydration and other illnesses when experiencing summer heat. Remember to also drink things with electrolytes that will help you recover from being outdoors. Electrolytes help our bodies complete their vital processes. Coconut water, milk-based drinks, smoothies, sports drinks, and more are great options to increase the electrolytes in your body.
  • Stay informed: with the weather changing from day to day, it is crucial to be informed about life-threatening weather patterns like heat waves and air quality changes. On the days when air quality is poor, you are highly discouraged from going outside at all. Be ready to be flexible when dealing with heat and air quality. 

Sources:

  • https://www.healthline.com/health/heat-intolerance#causes
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/thermoregulation#process
  • https://www.livescience.com/42283-three-ways-your-body-battles-with-cold.html