Summer is finally here. After being cooped up in our homes for the past several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and frigid winter conditions, many of us are taking advantage of the warmer weather to head outdoors.
But this summer is on track to becoming the hottest on record. And that means more people will be at risk for heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
In addition, many of the symptoms of heat illness mirror those of COVID-19, creating the unique challenge this summer of having to differentiate between the two.
Rush University Medical Center family medicine physician Kush Desai, MD, and emergency medicine physician Meeta Shah, MD, discuss the distinguishing factors of common heat-related illnesses and provide tips to help you stay cool and safe during the scorching summer months.
What to know about heat illnesses
Heat illnesses can occur when the body is not able to properly cool itself. Desai says that while the body normally cools itself by sweating, this might not be enough to combat extreme heat.
“In some cases, your body’s temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down, which has the potential to cause damage to vital organs,” he explains.
Here are some common heat-related illnesses to be aware of:
- Heat exhaustion is a condition that can occur after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures; it’s often is accompanied by dehydration. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress into a more serious heat illness known as heat stroke.
- Heat stroke is a condition that can happen when your body gets too hot. It is considered a medical emergency; if not treated quickly, it can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of heat illnesses
Despite the fact that all heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, heat-related illness kills more people — roughly 600 to 700 — in the U.S. each year than any other weather-related event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Here are the signs and symptoms of common heat illnesses to watch for:
- Heat exhaustion
- High body temperature
- High heart rate and low blood pressure
- Dehydration and electrolyte losses
- Extreme weakness
- Trouble walking
- Fainting or light-headedness
- Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Heat stroke
- High body temperature
- Profuse sweating
- Irrational behavior
- Emotional instability
- Altered consciousness
- Coma or seizure
Who is at risk for heat illness?
If exposed to certain risk factors, anyone can be susceptible to a heat-related illness. However, there are several factors that can further contribute to the effect a heat illness can have on your body:
- High body mass index, or obesity
- Old age
- Environmental conditions, such as high humidity
- Poor physical fitness
- Sleep deprivation
- Health conditions that predispose you to dehydration and malnutrition
- Intense physical exertion. High-level athletes are susceptible to heat illnesses, especially when training outdoors. In fact, the CDC reports that heat illness during practice or competition is a leading cause of death and disability among U.S. high school athletes, and a number of college football players have died due to complications from heat illness as well.
“Usually athletes have trainers and fellow athletes around them to help prevent heat illness from occurring, but it’s important to remain vigilant regardless,” Desai says. “That’s also true for recreational athletes: Take precautions against heat illness and act quickly if you notice any signs of trouble.”
COVID-19 compared to heat illnesses
The novel virus COVID-19 has a few similarities to heat-related illnesses — including its symptoms and at-risk populations. However, Shah says there are a few key differences.
“Severe heat illnesses can cause a fever, much like COVID-19; but there would likely be circumstances that point toward a heat illness, such as a history of being outside for a prolonged period of time or being at a home without air conditioning,” Shah says. “And a patient with a heat illness would likely not have a primary complaint of cough, which is commonly seen in patients with COVID-19, or loss of smell or taste.”
That said, many communities that are vulnerable to COVID-19 — the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income or homeless individuals — are also more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, which may greatly impact these populations this summer.
The combined impact [of COVID-19 and heat illness] on [at-risk] populations could be significant if we start to see many days of high heat.
“The combined impact on these populations could be significant if we start to see many days of high heat,” Shah says. “As health care workers, it’s our responsibility to educate the community about the risks of both COVID-19 and heat illness, especially for at-risk populations, to further ensure everyone’s health and safety.”
Tips to avoid heat stroke and heat exhaustion
It’s important to take cooling precautions in hot temperatures to avoid a heat illness. But one of the most important safety measures used to combat the spread of COVID-19, wearing a face mask, can add an extra layer of heat that may make you more vulnerable to heat illness.
“If you are in an outdoor space and can maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and others, it is safe to remove the mask and breathe freely,” Desai says. “If the mask you are currently using is challenging to breathe in, try switching to a disposable surgical mask during the summer months, as they are lighter than cloth masks.”
And follow these other tips to help you stay cool in the summer heat:
- Exercise early in the day, before it gets too hot or after sunset.
- Manage the intensity of your activity, and take breaks when you exercise.
- Stay hydrated! Make sure to drink enough fluids, such as water or sports drinks, while you are outdoors. And do not drink alcohol or a caffeinated beverage before exercising, as they both can dehydrate you.
- Put a cold pack or cool cloth on your neck, armpits or groin.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothes.
- Wear sunscreen and reapply frequently
- Spray yourself with cool water.
- Move into the shade or go into an air-conditioned building or car.
- Do not leave children in cars.
- Take a cool shower or bath.
- Pay attention to warnings about high temperatures, and avoid being outdoors as much as possible on days you know will be extremely hot.
- Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If you see signs, take immediate action.
Desai and Shah also encourage you to check on at-risk relatives and friends during heat waves to make sure they are able to stay cool — and to help if needed. Especially for people who don’t have air conditioning, the summer heat can quickly make living spaces dangerous.