Rutgers logo
Biomedical and Health Sciences

Rutgers emergency medical physician provides crucial tips to remain cool and healthy in extremely high temperatures

The National Weather Service warns that more than 100 million people are under excessive heat warnings or heat advisories this week as a dangerous heat wave continues to sweep across the U.S.

Lewis Nelson, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, discusses how to stay safe during extreme heat.

What are the health risks during a heat wave?
Heat waves are dangerous because as our body temperature rises due to persistence in a hot environment, our vital body functions  such as enzymes and organs  begin to malfunction. This leads to organ failure, and if untreated, can be lethal. Higher temperatures, higher humidity or longer exposure time in heat directly impacts the risk of overheating and the associated complications.

Any extreme of temperature  cold or hot  requires special adaptations to stay safe. In the cold, we can shiver to generate heat and we can put on layers of clothing and find a heat source. In the heat, however, the options to cool are more limited. We sweat to help lower our body temperature, but this effect is limited. We can wear lighter clothing, move activities to cooler indoor environments and drink fluids to maintain our ability to sweat effectively.

Keeping cool and safely hydrated is most important. Avoiding activity in the hot environment will help to prevent a dangerous rise in body temperature, but if unavoidable you should monitor  or have others monitor  your behavior and performance to assess if you need to be cooled.

Can you exercise during a heat wave?
You want to stay inside in the air conditioning during peak heat hours. However, you can still exercise as long as the indoor space is cool or air conditioned or the outdoor environment is cool, such as in the morning. This will mitigate a rise in your body temperature.

How much should we hydrate?
Maintaining adequate hydration is important, but it is equally important not to overdo it. When we sweat, we lose salt and water, and if we only drink water without electrolytes, we run the risk of lowering our body sodium to concerning levels. Eating regularly along with drinking water or drinking electrolyte-containing beverages should help to reduce heat-related risks to our bodies.

Can what we wear help us stay cool?
Light-colored clothing tends to reflect sunlight and helps keep your body cool. Lightweight and loose-fitting clothing allows air currents to accelerate sweat evaporation  an important form of cooling.

What should we do if we develop symptoms of a heat-related illness?
One of the primary symptoms of heat-related illness is altered mental status, which can manifest as confusion or lethargy. In these cases, consulting a doctor is critical to preventing short- and long-term complications.