How to Cool Down When It’s Really Hot Outside
TThe number of emperatures is increasing around the world. The record heat is heating large areas of the U.S., Europe and China. And the hottest part of summer lies ahead. This means that most people will spend more time in a sticky, sweaty mess.
“We’re seeing the hottest summers in recorded history, multiple years in a row,” says Dr. Grant Lipman, an emergency physician and founder of the Global Outdoor Emergency Support (GOES) Health app. “This is an issue for all different demographics and walks of life.”
Extreme heat can cause discomfort and irritation. Studies have shown that extreme temperatures lead to increased aggression, violence, and lower life satisfaction. This can prove to be dangerous. Extreme heat, which has claimed about 158 lives in the United States over the past thirty years, is one of America’s leading causes for weather-related death.
Here’s what to know about why the heat bothers some people more than others, and the most effective ways to cool down fast.
The body’s ability to regulate heat
The human body regulates heat in a few different ways: by vaporization (in other words, sweating); radiation, or releasing heat into the surrounding air; convection, which occurs when you’re enveloped by cooler air (which is why air conditioning is so effective); and conduction, or transferring body heat onto cold water or ice.
Some people are more susceptible to heat than others, usually depending on their environment, physiology, and prior exposure to heat, says Heather Massey, a senior lecturer in clinical exercise physiology and member of the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. “Particularly if you’re more aerobically fit, and if you regularly expose yourself to increased body temperature through exercise, you may be better acclimatized to a warmer environment or having a body temperature that’s elevated,” she says.
If you’ve spent a lot of time in a cold environment, however, you may find the transition into heat more challenging. After several days of being exposed to warm weather, “most people start to adapt,” Massey notes. “But if you’re in and out of air conditioning all the time, that might be problematic.”
It’s possible to train for better heat tolerance, Lipman says, and it usually takes about a week for your body to start adapting and finding better ways to cool itself. For example, if you’re planning to hike the Grand Canyon, where you know it will be scorching, Lipman recommends exercising in warm weather for an hour or two a day for about 10 days leading up to the activity. During that time, “your body’s reaction starts becoming more resistant to heat stress, in the sense that you’re able to shed heat quicker,” he says.
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Lipman states that heat illness can be prevented by being aware of temperature and humidity levels throughout the day. These safety techniques should be used when it reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Experts also recommend them. (Because heat tolerance is an individual thing, certain people are more susceptible to low temperatures.
It is best to avoid exercising during certain hours. The heat tends to be at its peak in the afternoon so make sure you plan outdoor activities for the morning. Dr. Jennifer Bontreger in Highland Village is a specialist in sports medicine. She encourages athletes to get up early in the morning. Also, it is usually cooler at night.
Be smart. Prioritize light, loose clothing with built-in UV protection, advises Amy Acton, a former nurse who’s CEO of the non-profit Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. People with severe burns can lose the ability to sweat which makes them more susceptible to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and extra care in direct sunlight. “There’s so much happening in textiles and fabrics these days to help us stay cool,” she says. “The science behind that has come a long way.” Look for clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of at least 30; that will help prevent some of the sun’s rays from penetrating the fabric. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UPF 50 blocks 98% of the sun’s rays, greatly reducing the risk of sun damage and skin disease.
Get your body well hydrated before you start the day. If you’re thirsty—and especially if you become dehydrated—“you’re not going to be able to sweat as much as you possibly can,” which means you won’t cool down as efficiently, Massey says. Make a point to stay hydrated, and if you’ve been exercising outdoors, drink about as much as you lost in sweat plus a little more, she advises.
Bontreger states that electrolyte-enhanced beverages can help in heat because they prevent heat-related cramping. Plus, she adds, alcohol and caffeine can dehydrate you, so it’s best to steer clear of those on hot days.
You should be smart about the events. In general, avoid scheduling or attending outdoor gatherings from around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., unless there’s ample shade, says Wendell Porter, a senior lecturer emeritus in agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida. Otherwise, “Somebody’s going to get in trouble,” and it’s never fun when festivities dissolve into emergencies. Even playing a lawn game like cornhole could ramp up a vulnerable person’s metabolic rate, Porter says, making them more susceptible to heat, so it’s best to proceed with extra caution when it’s very hot outside.
If you’re feeling ill, get out of the sun. Lipman advises that you find a shaded spot, or stay indoors if your symptoms include heat cramps, headaches or excess sweating. You may need to wait for a while before you can return to baseline. And if you suspect heatstroke—which includes symptoms like nausea and vomiting, a rapid pulse, fainting, confusion, or seizure—call 911 right away.
Here are the fastest ways to cool off quickly
There are some cooling methods that work more well than others. Here’s what experts suggest when you’re hot and unable to rely on air conditioning:
Get a spray of water on your skin. Massey, who works in the Extreme Environments Laboratory to research the most effective ways to increase comfort and performance under extreme conditions, discovered that cool tap water can be used to spray yourself and then you can fan yourself by using your hands or a piece paper or standing next to a fan to encourage cooling. “It simulates sweating on the skin, and then evaporation and convective cooling of the skin,” she says. This strategy can also work well for those who don’t have access to air conditioning.
Massey recommends that you avoid menthol-based cooling products. These sprays are similar to sunscreens and provide cooling sensations for the skin. These sprays might make your skin feel cooler, but they don’t lead to deep-body cooling, she says—and that could put you in a dangerous position, if you believe you’ve cooled down but actually haven’t. In that case, you might continue working or exercising outside, but since your body hasn’t cooled down, you’ll be at greater risk of heat illness.
Soak your feet and hands. The extremities are “amazing radiators of heat, especially when we’ve got an elevated deep body temperature,” Massey says. Often, children like going to the restroom to wash their hands in cold water—and they have the right idea. Even reasonably cool water will do the trick, she notes; it doesn’t need to be ice-cold.
Use water to wash your clothes. It’s not always practical, but if you’re sweltering, figure out a way to dampen your clothes, Lipman suggests. Run through the sprinkler like you used to as a child.
You should keep a stock of ice pack in your freezer. Massey mentions that Ice Packs work: You can use one to apply pressure on your face, hands or feet. However, there are some drawbacks. In addition to advanced planning—so that you always have one when and where you need it—ice packs will eventually melt, so there’s a time stamp on their helpfulness. (It’s also best not to put ice packs directly on your skin; keep a thin layer of cloth, like a shirt or rag, in between to avoid skin damage.)
People invest in ice vests. These are usually made from cooling fabric and have inserts that can be used to create ice sheets. If you don’t find them too uncomfortably heavy, they can be helpful. Craig Crandall of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine’s Thermal and Vascular Physiology Laboratory knows a victim who was burned and uses one for outings. “She’ll play soccer with these cooling vests on to help keep her cool, and it does work,” he says.
You can submerge as much of the body as you like if someone has heatstroke symptoms. Lipman states that this is the best way to quickly cool someone with heat illness. For about 10 minutes, lower the individual into the water, such as a bathtub, pool or lake, until their arms are below their elbows. “The colder the better—even if someone starts to shiver, the cold water will cause a temperature gradient and allow them to shed heat quicker,” he says.
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Enjoy the freshness of indoor air. Even on a blisteringly hot day, there will be relatively cool spans of time—usually from around 3 to 7 a.m., Wendell says. Keep the blinds and windows as wide open as you can to let as much cool air as possible into your home. “Then, right when the sun comes up, close your house up,” he says. Consider investing in blackout curtains, which will reduce the amount of heat that’s transferred inside via your windows.
In homes without AC, Wendell also recommends taking a cold shower before bed, running a cool cloth over your head, and, if possible, staying with a friend or family member when it’s uncomfortably hot. While fans can help, it is best to turn them off after you have left a room. “A fan only cools Please enter your email address,” he says. “It evaporates the moisture on your skin, but it doesn’t do a thing for the room.”
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