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How to Stay Cool in a Heat Wave

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

It’s the peak of summer, and temperatures are rising. Over 65 million people across 16 states in the U.S. are under heat alerts, and heat waves and extreme temperatures in Texas may even affect the power grid and lead to blackouts.

Heat waves aren’t just uncomfortable – they’re unusually hot heat events that can have serious consequences such as illness, drought, economic loss, and even death. The CDC reported an average of 702 heat-related deaths in the U.S. every year from 2004 to 2018, with many of these deaths being preventable.

Stay safe this summer by following our tips on staying cool during heat events. The following are some ways to help you remain comfortable, and prevent heat-related illness and death.

Stay Hydrated

One of the main ways to stay cool during a heatwave is to stay hydrated. During heat waves, you can start to lose fluids and can get dehydrated more quickly than you realize. Sweating may not be appealing, but it is your body’s way of keeping you cool. Drink plenty of water and do so frequently instead of waiting until you’re thirsty. A good rule of thumb if you are exposed to heat, for example if you are walking outdoors, is to drink one cup (8 fl oz) of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Drinking spring or mineral water and doing so frequently is better than drinking distilled water or intaking larger amounts less often.

Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

Replacing water with sports drinks or electrolyte solutions may be okay. However, be careful to avoid energy drinks, coffee, or any beverages that contain caffeine during a heatwave. Caffeine is a stimulant that may help you feel more alert and energized. But it is also a diuretic and has a dehydrating effect.

Similarly, alcohol too is a strong diuretic that can cause dehydration. In addition, alcohol’s intoxicating effects can feel confusingly similar to those of a heatstroke (e.g., dizziness, lightheadedness, thirst) making it less than ideal as a source of hydration during a heatwave.

Frequent Air-Conditioned Areas

Air conditioning can be your best friend during a heat wave. If your home is air-conditioned, make sure the filters are changed monthly. Even electrostatic filters that claim to only need changing every 3 months can cause an air-conditioning unit to work less efficiently after only 4 to 8 weeks of use during the summer months.

To maximize energy efficiency, experts recommend setting your thermostat to 78°F during the day, but turning down the temperature at night when you go to bed, to 72°F or lower. This may feel counter-intuitive and even uncomfortably cool to some, but it will help keep your home a little cooler, and your AC work a little easier during the day.

Alternatively, you can visit public spaces with air conditioning such as shopping malls and libraries. According to the CDC, you should not rely on a fan as your primary cooling device during extreme heat events.

Stay Out of Heat During Peak Hours

It’s critical to stay out of the sun when there’s a heat wave to limit your chances of overheating. If you have outdoor activities scheduled, reschedule them, and ensure you stay out of the heat, especially from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Instead of going out during peak hours, reschedule errands and other outdoor tasks for either the morning or the evening when the heat is less intense.

Choose the Right Clothing

If you’re outside, darker clothing may make you overheat more. Choose lightweight, looser clothing in light colors to stay as cool as possible. Breathable fabrics like cotton are great, and accessories like sunglasses and hats can offer additional sun protection.

Utilize Cooling Pads and Cold Water

Body parts with many blood vessels include your hands, feet, wrists, armpits, and ankles. Use cooling pads or cold water to keep yourself cool by targeting these areas. Alternatively, you can spray your skin or clothing with cold water to cool down your skin without sacrificing any of your body’s moisture. This cools down the body the same way sweat does and is highly effective.

Mind your diet

It may seem like an afterthought, but what you eat can greatly help or hurt your ability to cope with excessive heat. Eating foods that are high in antioxidants, electrolytes and water content such as watermelon, blueberries, prickly pears, mushrooms and cucumbers, will increase your heat resiliency.

On the other hand, certain foods can contribute to heat stress, and keep you from dissipating body heat efficiently. For example, oily and fried foods, nuts, and red meat can cause your body to retain heat and should be avoided. The same goes for processed foods and foods high in salt. Sodium is an essential electrolyte and can cause you to retain water, but excessive sodium puts stress on your heart and cause added thirst.

Spicy foods and warm foods are the subject of much debate. While a spicy and hot meal (think Szechuan or Thai peppers) may initially contribute to uncomfortable warmth, it is believed that they may actually help the body cope with environmental heat and ultimately lead to improved resiliency. But further research is still needed before formal recommendations can be made.

Watch for These Signs of Illness

In addition to these tips on staying cool during heat events, it’s also important to recognize the signs of heat-related illness so you know when to seek help.

If you or someone around you experiences headaches, excessive sweating, cramps, nausea, dizziness, weakness, and fainting, take the necessary steps to cool down by drinking fluids and going indoors or in the shade, or calling emergency services for help.

We hope these tips help you combat the ongoing heat events and keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

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