By Vashni Benjamin
We Sri Lankans are no strangers to the heat. With Sri Lanka’s cycle of seasons consisting of either rain or shine, the hot weather has become just another part of our lifestyle. But with heat wave warnings issued around the island and 2019 heading towards becoming the hottest year on record, maybe it’s time we paid a little more attention to preparing ourselves to face the fire.
Extreme temperatures can be life-threatening as they may affect your bodies in many ways. Though the temperature outside may be beyond our control, we can ward off its effects by keeping our body temperature low. For this purpose, we consulted Dr. Yasantha Ariyaratne (MBBS [MD]) for a few tips to help stay healthy during the warm weather.
Who is the most at risk during hot weather?
The extreme weather affects everyone. But some people are at even more risk due to conditions of their bodies. The elderly, babies, and young children have weaker immune systems and may struggle to regulate body temperature.
People with long-term health conditions like heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes may also suffer.
Those who work outdoors in hot and poorly-ventilated areas and those involved in physically taxing work are also at a very high risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses.
People on certain types of medication such as antihistamines (allergy medication) and antipsychotic medication should take care and consult their doctors in order to ensure that this medication will not affect them during heat waves.
Visitors from overseas who are not acclimatised to the heat must take extra precaution to stay cool and hydrated throughout.
What are some heat-related illnesses that can occur?
Heat-related illnesses occur as result of exposure to extreme heat. The human body is made up mostly of water and most bodily functions rely heavily on it. As the body loses water during the hot weather due to evaporation, the body cannot function normally, leading to many dangerous conditions. Furthermore, the human body is made to regulate temperature by itself. As the body tries to cool itself down, blood rushes to the skin, which may result in a lack of blood flow to the brain, making way for feelings of dizziness, fainting, and nausea.
While most of these conditions can be solved through proper hydration and cooling down, extreme conditions may require medical attention. The following are some of the most common heat-related illnesses:
· Heat rash – commonly known as “prickly heat”, it is a painful, itchy rash caused by excessive sweating. It may affect adults, but it is more commonly seen in young children. It can be identified by clusters of red blisters or pimples, especially in areas prone to sweat such as the neck, upper-chest, and elbows. It is important to keep these areas dry of moisture. While powders may help, the use of ointments and creams are discouraged.
· Dehydration – this condition occurs when your body loses too much water. Common symptoms include dizziness, tiredness, thirst, dark yellow urine, loss of appetite, and fainting. It can be prevented by consuming lots of fluids, particularly water. You are discouraged from taking energy drinks and drinks with high sugar content, as well as coffee and tea which might have a diuretic effect on your body.
· Heat cramps – this occurs as a result of loss of salt and water in the body during strenuous activity. Muscle pains or spasms are a good indication of heat cramps. Heat cramps can also be an early symptom of heat exhaustion. Those suffering should stop all activity and move to a cool place. Drinking plenty of water or diluted fruit juice and having a cool water shower may help. Cool packs can be applied to the area of the cramps and massaging the area should help ease the pain. If the cramps continue for more than one hour, seek medical attention.
· Heat exhaustion – this is also caused by losing excessive amounts of water and salt contained in sweat. Symptoms include extreme sweating, pale skin, abnormal pulse rate, fast and shallow breathing, muscle weakness/cramps, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and fainting. If you think you may be having heat exhaustion, move to a cooler place and lie down. Make sure to take in cool fluids and have a cold shower. Put cool packs under the armpits and on the back of the neck to reduce body heat. If symptoms last longer than an hour, seek medical attention.
· Heat stroke – this condition occurs when your body temperature gets too high. It is a life-threatening emergency and one of the most serious heat-related illnesses. It can be identified by a sudden rise in body temperature, red, hot, and dry skin, swollen and dry tongue, rapid pulse, rapid shallow breathing, intense thirst, headache, nausea, and vomiting, dizziness, confusion, poor coordination, slurred speech, loss of consciousness and in extreme situations, seizures or coma.
Immediate first aid and medical attention is of utmost importance. Calling an ambulance or taking the patient to an ER is very important. In the meantime, move the person to a cool area, remove excess clothing, and give them small sips of water if they are able to drink. Try to reduce body heat by placing cool packs, spraying them with water, soaking their clothes, or giving them a sponge bath. Any type of medication is discouraged as it may be harmful. If they are unconscious, lay them on their side (recovery position) and check for breathing. CPR can be performed if needed.
Foods to eat and foods to avoid
During hot weather, it is important to listen to your body. We often have a lack of appetite during this period as our bodies try to reduce heat-inducing functions such as digestion. So make sure to eat food that is easily digestible. Hydration is an important part of our diet during these times.
You are encouraged to eat cooling fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, lettuce, melons, berries, and cabbage. Traditional Sri Lankan foods like sago porridge, mung beans, and even coconut water are known for their cooling properties.
As we sweat, we lose a lot of sodium, which is an important electrolyte that must be replaced for proper bodily function. So meals like soups and salads can make very good replacements for carbohydrates that take longer to digest. Mixing in mint leaves with your food, adding tomatoes to your salad, and adding a slice of fruit to your water are some other tips to ensure that you consume the right amount of nutrients.
On the other hand, highly processed food, foods high in protein, food with diuretic effects, foods with extreme spice, high meat intake, alcohol, and drinks high in sugar and diuretic properties are not recommended.
What to wear and what to avoid
Dressing right is another way you can stay cool during the warm weather. By choosing the right fabric, you can ensure that you aren’t raising your body temperature more than necessary.
Loose-fitting, lightweight clothing is encouraged because it ensures plenty of air circulation and helps reduce sweating. Lighter colours are the way to go because they reflect the sunlight rather than absorb it and will definitely help reduce the heat. Fabrics like cotton and linen will ensure that you feel comfortable even in the heat.
Fabrics like denim, nylon, and polyester will have the opposite effect and wearing these is highly discouraged. As mentioned, darker colours absorb light and heat and therefore increase body temperature. Heavy and tight-fitting clothing are also not recommended as they will reduce air circulation and cause you to sweat more than necessary.
Advice for working out
Everyone is advised to limit physical activity during hot weather as it can lead to excessive loss of water and sodium. But for those who still don’t want to miss out on their daily workout regimes, these are some tips:
· Limit exercise – know your body’s limits amidst the heat
· Workout in cooler areas and try to avoid exercising during the day
· Eat food with hydrating properties
· Keep an eye out for warning signs of heat-related illnesses – muscle cramps, nausea or vomiting, weakness, fatigue, headache, excessive sweating, dizziness or lightheadedness, confusion, low blood pressure, increased heart rate, and visual problems
· Dress appropriately – avoid dark and tight-fitting clothing
· Have alternate plans – go for a walk instead of the usual routine
· Drink plenty of water with a hydrolyte if necessary
· Stay hydrated – hydration is of absolute importance. Water is the best way to regulate body temperature. Carrying a water bottle with you may psychologically encourage you to drink more
· Don’t forget to use the toilet – it is important to ensure that you’re flushing out all the toxins and waste in your body as much as possible. Increasing water intake may result in increased urination and you must make sure that you are not holding it in for extended periods of time
· Make sure the house is ventilated – open the windows to ensure air circulation throughout the house. Fans and dehumidifiers will also help you stay cool throughout the day
· Try to stay indoors as much as possible – the extreme heat can be very draining and people are encouraged to stay indoors as much as possible during daytime. Try as much as possible to refrain from engaging in strenuous activity
· Wear sunscreen that’s suitable for your skin – along with the heat, the sun also brings a multitude of rays that may affect your skin. Find a sunscreen with the right SPF to prevent skin trouble
· Watch the weather forecast – listen to the news and make sure you’re prepared to face the heat. If heat wave warnings are issued, heed the advice. Take an umbrella or hat with you to protect yourself from the sun.