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Traveling in a Heat Wave: Expert Advice to Stay Cool on Your Vacation

September 1, 2023

As temperatures across the U.S. and Europe continue to hit record highs this summer, you may wonder how the heat will affect your vacation plans. Although you may need a break or want to visit family and friends, you do not want to wind up in the emergency room with extreme heat-related illnesses such as sun poisoning or heat stroke.

So, before you hit the skies or the road, here are a few things you can do to protect your well-deserved time off.

What Extreme Heat Can Do to the Body

First, it is essential to know what extreme heat can do to the body, especially to the young, the elderly, pregnant women, people with heart conditions, or taking certain medications such as antihistamines, some antidepressants, and diuretics. In a heat wave, it's essential to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body overheats because of high temperatures and dehydration. Dr. Seth Feltheimer, an internal medicine specialist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, sat down with us to share some common signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, including:

  • Excessive sweating 
  • Fatigue or weakness 
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness 
  • Headache, nausea, or vomiting 
  • Muscle cramps 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Feeling faint or near-fainting 

Taking immediate action is critical to prevent it from progressing to heat stroke. This true medical emergency can be life-threatening or cause permanent damage to internal organs such as the kidneys and the liver. The symptoms of heat stroke may include:

  • High body temperature (above 103°F or 39.4°C) 
  • Altered mental state or confusion 
  • Throbbing headache 
  • Rapid and shallow breathing 
  • Racing heart rate 
  • Red, hot, and dry skin without sweating 
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea 
  • Seizures 
  • Loss of consciousness 

Heat stroke can develop quickly within a few hours from exertion or physical activity in extreme heat, or non-exertional developing over a few days while sitting in an unairconditioned apartment. 

Prevention is Key

Traveling in extreme heat requires special precautions to ensure your safety and well-being. The best thing to do is try and prevent any heat-related illness, whether it's a heat rash, sunburn, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke from the start. Here are some tips to help you navigate hot weather conditions:

  • Plan your activities wisely:  Do outdoor activities like hiking during the cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or evening, when the temperatures are lower.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water, preferably electrolyte-enhanced, even if you don't feel thirsty. Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol, caffeine, and sugary drinks, as they can contribute to dehydration.
  • Dress appropriately: Wear lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that protects your skin from direct sunlight. Consider using a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to shield your face and eyes.
  • Apply sunscreen: Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF (Sun Protection Factor) to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. Reapply it every two hours or more frequently if you're sweating or swimming.
  • Seek shade: Find shade or take breaks indoors to cool down. If you're in a location without natural shade, consider using an umbrella or setting up a canopy to create your own shade.
  • Use cooling aids: Carry a portable fan and use a cooling towel. You can also wear a damp bandana around your neck to help lower your body temperature.
  • Pace yourself: Take regular breaks and listen to your body. If you feel tired, dizzy, or experience heat-related symptoms, find a cool place to rest and recover.
  • Be mindful of food safety: Avoid consuming foods that spoil quickly in high temperatures, especially if you need clarification on their storage conditions. Choose light, fresh meals that won't weigh you down or feel heavy.
  • Stay connected: Inform a friend or family member about your travel plans and check in with them regularly. Carry a fully charged mobile phone and keep emergency contact numbers handy.
  • Be prepared for flight delays: Hotter air is denser and could impact the ability of your plane to take off. Be prepared for delays or cancellations.  

Treating Heat-Related Illnesses

If you suspect someone is experiencing heat exhaustion or heat stroke, call emergency services immediately and take immediate steps to cool them down. Move them to a shaded area, out of direct sunlight, apply cool water to their body, and fan them. If you are waiting for emergency medical services to arrive, you can also help cool their body down by: 

  • Removing excess clothing to aid in the cooling process.
  • Applying ice packs or cold compresses to the neck, armpits, and groin areas can also be helpful.
  • Monitoring vital signs by closely monitoring the person's breathing, pulse, and level of consciousness. 
  • Providing reassurance and comfort to the person. If they are conscious and can swallow, you can offer small sips of cool water if available.

So as summer winds down, remember that preventing a heat health emergency is all about being prepared.