As we head into mid-summer, temperatures across the country are reaching new highs, inviting more people to spend time outdoors.
But spending more time in the heat can also come with potential health concerns.
This can include heat exhaustion, a condition that occurs when the body is exposed to extremely high temperatures, causing overheating and dehydration.
Dr. Mark Leung, a program director for the enhanced skills program in sport and exercise medicine at the University of Toronto, says for some, heat exhaustion can also lead to a heat stroke.
The main sign of heat stroke is not being able to produce sweat, the body’s natural way of cooling off.
“If they’re not sweating and they’re super hot, that is pretty concerning,” Leung said.
How heat impacts our health
Leung says heat cramps are the mildest form of the sickness.
This can include muscle spasms and cramps, he said. This is a good time to slow down to avoid your body from escalating to the next stage, which is heat exhaustion.
Heat exhaustion is when the body temperature rises and the person begins to feel unwell.
When the temperature is high outside, especially with the humidity, working out or doing other intense activities outdoors can cause the body to overheat and feel ill, he said.
Heat stroke: signs and treatment
The external heat from the environment tied in with a person’s internal heat can lead to a lot of heat-related complications, the most concerning being heat stroke.
Leung says this is the most severe case and occurs when the body’s core temperature reaches or exceeds 40C.
“The concern is when people start to experience both the typical symptoms of heat exhaustion and then they also exhibit mental status changes where they become confused, disoriented, difficult to communicate with, sometimes agitated, and the most concerning is when they lose consciousness,” he said.
Ira Jacobs, dean of the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, says that when the body temperature is rising internally and the external environment is too hot, the body ends up losing the ability to cool itself down.
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“It ends up being a competition for blood,” he said. ”A competition between your body’s desire to get rid of heat by increasing the amount of blood we send out to our skin and our extremities, so heat can be transferred from our blood out to the environment,” he said.
“So competition between that and what our normal functions need to keep normal physiology going, it draws away from those normal functions where the blood would otherwise be,” Jacobs said.
He says those who are at greater risk of experiencing heat exhaustion are those who exercise and train outdoors, those who are overweight or obese, the older population and those who have preexisting medical conditions.
Outdoor workers at risk of heat exhaustion
Jacobs adds people who fall into the greater risk category should slow down the frequency and intensity of their workout, especially those who have occupations that require them to work outside.
It is best to take frequent breaks and give the body more intervals to cool off to avoid overheating.
By allowing your body to cool off and produce sweat, it can keep yourself from feeling sick and falling into heat exhaustion.
“The main heat source of heat production by far is our own metabolism,” Jacobs said.
To keep safe in the scorching heat, individuals need to control their own heat within their body, whether that means going outside at a better time, doing less intense work outside, or keeping themselves hydrated to remain cool.
How to enjoy hot temperatures safely
Water helps keep the body full of hydration, especially as sweat evaporates.
“Don’t drink to stay ahead of thirst, but rather drink to the dictates of thirst,” said Leung, adding this is useful for those training or exercising outside.
Leung says you should also be well prepared and trained for the planned activity, doing something new or out of your comfort zone can cause shocks to the body, especially if you are not accustomed to that exercise tied in with the high temperature.
Another tip Leung gave for those planning outdoor activities is to avoid peak hours, going earlier in the day or later in the evening is best as the weather would be cooler and comfortable.
And what you wear also matters. Leung says loose-fitted, light-coloured, minimal clothing allows the body to fully breathe. Avoid wearing dark, thick clothing in hotter climates to let your body be free to sweat as much as possible.
Also, keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day, only drinking as much as your body needs and not over-drinking unnecessarily is important when the weather is hot outside.
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“The old school thinking was to try and drink before you’re thirsty and what’s that led to is undesired and severe medical conditions,” said Leung.
And knowing what you’re getting yourself into is important, especially for your body.
“You have to realize that your physical performance capacity is reduced in the heat, therefore you should reduce the intensity of work that you normally do, otherwise you’re going to become exhausted more quickly,” Jacobs said.
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