The Heat Is On! SMW’s Tips for Keeping Cool—and Healthy

By Martin Brown

sunburn womanSummer’s here, it’s time to give some thought to watching for signs of heatstroke and sunburn.

Think you have that topic covered already? Well, think again. Every year millions of us are the victims of heatstroke and sunburn, even though we assume we know the do’s and don’ts of fun in the sun. Whether it was a little too much alcohol, or just too nice a day to head for the shade, or a shortage of sunscreen, or forgetting to bring along some bottled water, it’s a mistake that most of us make, once, twice or more in our lives.

If you or someone you know has the misfortune of overstaying their welcome in the sun or playing too hard in the heat, here’s some quick reminders on how to avoid sunburns, and what to do if you indeed find yourself with the bright red lobster look:

First and foremost you need to know that heart stroke and heat exhaustion are two different results of heat related illness.

Heat exhaustion is unpleasant; heatstroke is potentially fatal. Knowing how to identify the difference between these two can be critical in saving your life, or the life of a friend or loved one.

Heatstroke is most often the result of extensive exercise or too much work in hot environments combined with an absence of fluid intake. Older adults, young children, and the obese are most commonly the victims of heart stroke. But it can strike anyone at any age—even the most fit—if there is significant dehydration or excessive alcohol intake involved.

What makes heatstroke a potential killer is that it prevents the body’s normal reactions to heat -elated stress to kick in. Normally when we overheat,the body reacts by sweating and internally adjusting our temperature control. However, in heatstroke, these normal body functions break down.

With heatstroke, the key symptom to look out for is a dramatically elevated body temperature, often in excess of 104 F. Heatstroke victims will also display a noticeable change in mental acuity, with an array of behaviors from altered personality to total confusion. With increased severity, a coma is also a possible result. Rapid heartbeat, acute headache, nausea and fainting are also indicators of heatstroke.

What to do? Take action immediately. First,  drink water, if that is possible. However, if you have someone who is passed out, never attempt to put water inside the mouth.

In either case, move the person into the shade, and better yet air-conditioned area, if possible. Soak bed sheets in cold water and wrap the victim in it, then fan the person to make sure that the sheets have cool air passing over them. If a water spray bottle is available, use it as well, and be certain that the cold wet cloths are pressed against the neck, the armpits, and behind the knees of the patient. These are all key cooling centers and help the body to recover far more quickly.

If you don’t see noticeable improvement with two or three minutes, dial 911 for emergency assistance. Remember: heatstroke is potentially fatal; it should not be taken lightly.

Heat exhaustion is different, and here’s why: heat exhaustion can be thought of as a prelude to heatstroke. This is why your being able to know the signs of heat exhaustion can be so critical in avoiding a more serious medical emergency.

With heat exhaustion, you will see excessive sweating, a rapid pulse, mild nausea, a low-grade fever, no higher than 102 F, and a feeling of faintness. This is a series of symptoms that mimic heatstroke, but are noticeably less severe.

To relief heatstroke, loosen or remove clothing, apply wet clothes, paying particular attention to the body’s natural cooling centers, and most importantly, get into the shade, or air-conditioning and slowly but steadily begin taking water.

Finally, a word about that old summertime curse, the sunburn.

Rule #1: Leave suntan lotion in your bag, your car, basically anywhere you are going to be that you may need it.

Rule #2: Get 45 or 60 SPF. Never buy the lower amounts. Those high SPF numbers don’t represent any higher level of protection; they simply mean that you can be in the sun for a longer period of time. People put on a 15 SPF, thinking they will be in the sun for twenty minutes—then sit out by the pool for an hour or two . . .


Two other things to keep in mind: One, after you have been in the water reapply your suntan lotion. Two, after an hour, even with a 60 SPF, reapply.

In the business of sunburn you can never err on the side of using too much. Too little, that’s a bad choice.

Enjoy your summer and play safe in the sun!


Martin Brown is the Heath Channel Editor for, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding Mr. Right.

His latest book is Fit in 50 Days.


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