Am I Just Hot or in Serious Danger?

By: Sally Wadkya, MSN Healthy Living
By: Sally Wadkya, MSN Healthy Living

The dog days of summer are upon us. And when the thermometer climbs into the triple digits (or even the high doubles) the heat can be enough to literally make you sick. But it can be hard to know if what you're feeling just means you should seek out some shade -- or if you need to get yourself in front of an AC ASAP.

Dr. Jeremy Fine is board-certified in internal medicine and is a former clinical instructor of medicine at both the UCLA and USC schools of Medicine. He explains what's normal on a hot day and what's a sign of something more serious.

Q: Why do I sweat so much more than everyone else?
A: “Everyone sweats differently,” says Dr. Fine. “There’s nothing wrong with you if you are sweating more than the person next to you.” And the fact that you’re sweating is actually a good indication that your body is doing exactly what it needs to do to counteract the high temps of a steamy day. “Sweating is the body’s way of cooling itself down, so if you’re sweating, that should be a reassuring sign of health,” he explains.

But just because your sweat mechanism is operating in tip-top shape doesn’t mean that you can’t end up with suffering some health consequences while perspiring profusely. Your sweat is made up of 95 percent water and 5 percent electrolytes (important compounds like potassium and sodium). So when you sweat a lot, it’s critically important to replace both the lost water and the lost electrolytes. While drinking water will help ensure that you don’t get dehydrated, Fine suggests trying a sports drink to give your body back those crucial electrolytes during times when you’re sweating more than normal.

Q: If my face turns beet-red when I run on a hot day, does that mean I should stop?
A: Not necessarily. Overexerting yourself in the heat is never a good thing, but chances are, if you’re really overdoing it, a red face won’t be the only symptom. You will also likely feel dizzy, faint, light-headed and maybe nauseous. If you feel fine other than the fact that you’re red in the face, there’s probably no need to abandon your exercise routine.

But why, you wonder, are you turning so red? “When you exercise, small capillaries in the surface of the skin dilate in an effort to move the heat generated by the exertion to the surface and out of the body,” explains Dr. Fine. “Just like sweating, this is a cooling mechanism the body uses so that it doesn’t overheat.” And while this sort of flushing is totally normal, it doesn’t happen to everyone (as you’ve probably noticed when you’re bright red and your running partner isn’t). “Some people have more capillaries in their face, so the flushing is more obvious,” says Fine.

Q: If I’m really thirsty, does that mean that I’m really dehydrated?
A: The short answer is no — or at least, not yet. What it does mean is that you should listen to your body and go grab a drink. “When the volume of fluid in your body is low, a chemical in your brain sends a signal to your body to make you feel thirsty so that you drink,” explains Dr. Fine. “Feeling thirsty means you need to drink, but not that you’re necessarily dehydrated yet.”

However, if you continue to ignore your body’s thirst signal, you can risk getting dehydrated. Go long enough without replenishing your fluids and the situation can get dangerous, especially if you’re outside on a hot day. More serious signs of dehydration include fatigue, dry mouth, not urinating or having very dark urine, dizziness and confusion. “Without water, everything in your body will dry up, and that’s a vicious cycle,” says Fine. “If the body doesn’t have enough fluid to sweat, then it can’t cool itself down and you’ll overheat.” So on these hot days, keep a water bottle handy and keep continuously hydrated.

Q: How should I treat a bad sunburn?
A: When your skin is bright red and feels like it’s on fire, chances are you’ve gotten a first-degree burn (the least severe type). Your best strategies are to take steps to cool down your skin, reduce the inflammation and keep comfortable. “First thing you should do is take a pain reliever like ibuprofen,” says Dr. Fine. Next, rub on something that’s cooling and anti-inflammatory, like aloe vera gel or hydrocortisone cream. You could also soak in a cool bath. “You don’t want it to be freezing cold; just a couple of degrees cooler than your very hot skin,” he says. But while you’re in the bath or shower, skip the soap, which will just further irritate your skin. Staying hydrated from both the inside out and outside in will also help, so drink plenty of water and also use a gentle, soothing, moisturizing lotion on the burn. Wearing loose clothing is best, since anything that touches your fiery skin will cause only more discomfort.

If, however, your skin starts to swell up and blister, those are signs that you’re dealing with a more serious, second-degree burn. This is a situation that calls for a trip to the doctor. Because if you pop any of those blisters yourself you are exposing that wound to bacteria and you could risk an infection. Best to let a professional assess the situation and help make sure your serious burn doesn’t turn into an even more serious problem. And in the future, don’t forget your sunscreen!

Q: Does feeling nauseous and dizzy mean I’m getting heatstroke?
A: Well, it could, and that is definitely not something to mess around with. “Heatstroke — also sometimes called sunstroke — occurs when your core body temperature is greater than 105 degrees, and it can be life-threatening if it’s not treated immediately,” says Dr. Fine. So be alert to the warning signs in yourself and in your friends. Nausea, dizziness, confusion, headache, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate and lack of sweating are all dangerous signals that something is wrong. “If you think someone may be suffering from heatstroke, call 911 immediately and take steps to start cooling them down,” says Fine. “Dump a bucket of ice on them or put ice cubes under their armpits and on their forehead.”

Heatstroke can happen when you’re out in the hot sun for a long time, but it can also be caused by a short stint in extreme heat. “It can come on very quickly,” says Fine. “The biggest catalyst is dehydration, so when you are in the heat, be sure to stay well hydrated.”

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