Summer in Tennessee can feel like a never-ending heat wave. True, there are occasional breaks in the heat, but they’re usually short-lived. That means that everyone needs to familiarize themselves with the dangers of getting overheated and develop a few strategies for staying cool and safe.
WellTuned spoke with Dr. Chris Andershock, a medical director with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee’s BlueCare program, about the dangers of overheating in the hot temperatures and the best ways to avoid it.
Heat-related illness explained
Dr. Andershock: It’s easy to get overheated if you’re not really paying attention. It can start slowly and progress to a more serious state before you realize it. Knowing the warning signs can help you monitor yourself—and your companions—so you can take action before it’s too late.
There are three stages of heat-related illness:
- Heat cramps. Heat cramps take the form of muscle cramps when you’re exercising or spending time sweating outside in the heat. The most likely spot for muscle cramps: your legs.
- Heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can develop after you’ve been sweating and losing water and salt without replacing them. In addition to cramps, your skin may become pale and moist, and your body temperature rises above 100.4 degrees. You may experience some nausea, fatigue, weakness, and headache. It may feel like you’re coming down with the flu. If your body is unable to cool itself off and you don’t take steps to recover, your heat exhaustion could progress into heat stroke.
- Heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when excessive heat overwhelms your body, and you can no longer regulate your temperature. The most common symptoms include a fever over 104 degrees, warm and dry skin, a fast heart rate, and confusion. You can even lose consciousness or have seizures. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.
An important fact to keep in mind: people who are older and very young are more sensitive to heat. So you definitely want to watch out for older adults and young children and babies. Those with chronic medical conditions who take medications may need to be extra careful, too.
If you notice any symptoms developing, stop what you’re doing and go inside to an air-conditioned area, where you can rest and drink some fluids. Cool wet cloths on your skin can help, too. If it looks like heat stroke, call 911 right away.
How to avoid heat-related illness
You don’t have to give up being active just because it’s hot. Here are some practical tips for staying cool during the hot Tennessee summer.
1. Stay hydrated
It can’t be said enough: staying hydrated when the temperature soars is absolutely critical. A rule of thumb: average adults should aim for drinking a liter of water for every hour they spend outside in the heat. People with larger bodies will need even more water. A tip for making it easier to drink enough water: fill up an insulated water bottle and take it along with you, so you can sip on it frequently. If you’re not a big fan of regular water, try sparkling water instead. Or add a twist of lime, lemon or orange to give your water a hint of flavor.
You should start hydrating before you head outdoors, especially if you’re going to be participating in a time-consuming activity like walking, running, mowing the lawn or gardening.
2. Seek out the shade
Stay out of the direct sunlight as much as you can. Find a tree, a tent, a covered porch or whatever will provide some relief from the sun.
3. Snack strategically
Another great way to beat the heat is to eat snacks that will help keep you cool and hydrated. Popsicles, watermelon, frozen grapes, frozen bananas, and cucumber slices are good options for filling you up and cooling you down.
4. Don’t overdo it
At some point you just need to get out of the heat. Even if you do everything right, from hydrating in advance to staying in the shade, you can still risk getting too hot. Give yourself a break and go inside to rest. Then you can get back out there when you are cool again.
5. Dress appropriately
You definitely don’t want to wear anything that will trap heat close to your body. Opt for light, loose-fitting clothing instead. A hat that will protect you from the sun is a good option, too.
6. Look for cool indoor activities
When the temperatures really heat up, you might be better off finding something fun to do inside. Take your kids to a museum, the library, the movies, a planetarium, or an indoor play area.
7. Visit a state park
Consider visiting one of Tennessee’s numerous state parks. Many have water elements and shady areas where you can stay cool outdoors. Also, there are more than a dozen BlueCross Healthy Places throughout the state where you can be active and interact with neighbors.
8. Be judicious about alcohol intake
Be mindful that alcoholic beverages don’t provide the kind of hydration that you need to protect you from the heat. In fact, alcohol can function as a diuretic, which causes you to lose water and sodium, which can raise the risk of heat cramps. Plus, alcohol can impair your decision-making abilities, which means you might be slower to recognize heat stress and take action. So if you’re planning to drink alcohol, reduce your risk by hydrating first, then alternating alcoholic beverages with water.
“There’s often not a clear-cut line between the three stages of heat-related illness,” says Dr. Andershock. “As soon as you recognize the signs that are you being affected by the heat, it’s time to stop and make changes. Taking preventive steps to stay cool can go a long way to help you avoid the problem in the first place.”
Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.