Don’t Be a Hot Head: Tips to Avoid Heat Stress

Whether you are working outside or participating in an athletic event like the TD Beach to Beacon in Maine, ASYMCA Mud Run in Virginia or New York Adventure Racing Association's Trail Series, avoiding heat stress is essential to achieving your goals and having a safe and enjoyable summer. Thousands of workers and athletes require treatment for heat exposure each year.  Here are some of the more serious heat disorders:

Heat Rash is the most common problem in hot environments and produces blister-like raised bumps on the skin that may itch or be painful to the touch. Treatment includes limiting time in the heat, keeping the skin dry and showering promptly after being in the heat.

Heat Cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur in the leg, arm, or abdomen. The cramps occur as a result of extended physical activity in a hot environment. Heat cramps are one of the first signs of dehydration. If you suffer from heat cramps you should rest and drink water and electrolyte liquids like Gatorade. Eat salty crackers to increase salt in-take. Do not use salt tablets. Try chewing on ice chips to cool down.

Heat Exhaustion is a result of the combination of excessive heat and dehydration. This serious condition, which left untreated, can lead to heat stroke. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness and/or fainting, weakness, heavy sweating, thirst, moist-clammy skin, and elevated body temperature. People in this condition should be moved to a cool shaded area. Cool them with water or cold compresses to the head, neck, and face. Have them drink water and electrolyte liquids like Gatorade. If they cannot drink or become lethargic, call 911. Make sure someone stays with them until help arrives.

Heat Stroke is the most serious illness associated with working in hot environments and if left untreated will result in death. Symptoms include hot dry skin (sweating may or may not still be present), red-bluish skin, rapid pulse, confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures/convulsions, very high body temperature. Call 911 immediately. Soak clothing and skin in cool water and use a fan to create air movement. Make sure someone stays with the worker until help arrives.

Preventing heat stress in the first place is the goal and following these five tips will go a long way towards keeping you safe:

  1. Plan your day.  If you can, avoid strenuous activity during the hottest parts or the day. If possible, secure a shady spot near your activity zone to take breaks in and limit time in the direct sun.
  2. Wear the right gear. Light colored, breathable fabrics and hats that shade your face and neck will help to keep you comfortable under the sun’s rays. Eye damage is a concern, too – make sure your pair of sunglasses filters at least 90 percent of ultraviolet (UV) rays.
  3. Apply sunscreen early and often. The benefits of regular sunscreen use are well-documented, but studies continue to show that adults often don’t wear enough, if they wear it at all. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (protecting against UV-A and UV-B rays) with an SPF of at least 15. Apply liberally 30 minutes before going outside, and every two hours thereafter.
  4. Stay hydrated. The more we sweat, the more important it is to replace the fluids our body has lost. Water is perfectly acceptable for short periods outside, but for longer stretches, you may want to consider replenishing your electrolytes with a sports drink. The Center for Disease Control recommends approximately one cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Alcohol, caffeine, and sugary drinks are not recommended, as they tend to dehydrate your body.
  5. Assess how you’re feeling on a regular basis. If you can, take the time to rest in the shade for a few minutes every hour and monitor yourself for signs of overexposure and dehydration. If you’re feeling dizzy, nauseated, or extremely fatigued, it’s likely a sign that your body needs a break from heat exposure. Muscle pain or spasms may indicate dehydration or low salt levels.  Don’t ignore these warning signals. Overextending yourself can be a serious health risk.

By taking some simple precautions and staying mindful of your body’s reactions to exertion and the temperature, many heat-related sicknesses, like heat stroke, dehydration, and sunburn can be avoided and your summer will be a lot more enjoyable. Check out these resources from NIOSH or the MEMIC Safety Director for more information on heat street. Running in the USA is also a great resource for outdoor events and clubs.