June 29, 2021

Stay healthy during our heat wave

Think twice before you head out to catch a few rays — prolonged exposure can be life-threatening
Sunset at Heritage Park
Sunset at Heritage Park Flickr photo by Richard Bukowski published under Creative Commons licence

In Western Canada, sunny summer days are welcomed but too much of a good thing can be dangerous.

With temperatures in the Calgary region set to reach upwards of 35°C this week, remember your personal safety. Extreme heat carries risk.

Keep these tips in mind for beating the heat:

1. Drink lots of water, prevent dehydration

According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), it is important to drink six to eight 250 mL cups of water a day. On an extreme-heat day, it is important to drink at least this much to prevent dehydration. In extreme cases, dehydration is when the body no longer has enough fluid to get blood to organs. Dehydration can cause high fever, vomiting and in severe cases can send the body into shock, which is life-threatening.

Dr. David Keegan, MD, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine, also advises avoiding alcohol and caffeine.

“Extreme heat will make it harder for your body to cope and increase the risk of getting heat illness,” he says. “Sip water even if you’re not thirsty.”

2. Be alert for the signs of heatstroke or heat illness  

The Mayo Clinic states heatstroke can happen when the body overheats and one’s core temperature rises to 40°C. When this happens, a person’s heart, kidney, muscles and brain are at risk. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, heatstroke is not the only form of heat-related illness. General awareness and caution go a long way. Whenever possible, stay in the shade and be aware of how you are feeling.

Signs of illness can include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Heat rash
  • Profuse sweating

“If someone is confused in the heat or feeling huge amounts of symptoms such as drenching sweats, significant weakness or headache, this is no longer a minor thing,” Keegan says.

“Cool them down as quickly as possible while getting them to an emergency department or calling 911. The quickest, best way to cool someone down is to spray them with water or wipe them with a wet cloth and then fan them, repeating this cycle over and over.”

3. Prevent sunburns

According to AHS, sunburn is skin damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. These burns can result in pain and redness and hurt to the touch. Sunburns not only cause immediate damage, but can also cause long-term health issues such as increased chances of skin cancer, cold sores, and premature wrinkling or brown spots. To combat and prevent yourself from getting sunburns, AHS suggests protecting your skin from the sun. Do not stay in the sun too long, wear a hat and use sunscreens.

4. Avoid strenuous exercise

You might want to skip that daily run. Exercising in extreme heat can cause heat exhaustion or heatstroke and muscle cramps. Heat cramps are caused when the body sweats profusely and loses electrolytes that stabilize body chemistry and maintain normal functions. Youth and small children are more susceptible to heat exhaustion.

Keegan suggests reducing your exercise intensity and avoiding midday sun. Try working out indoors, like walking in an air-conditioned space, but remember to wear a mask to decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Here is a checklist of other ways to protect yourself during a heat wave:

  • Keep children and pets out of direct sun as much as possible
  • Before going out, put ice cubes in your water bottle to keep the water chilled
  • Try to stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. if possible
  • Close curtains and blinds to decrease the heat gained in your home during the day
  • Wear sunscreen and wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • Cook wisely – using your stove or oven will increase the temperature in your home
  • Check in with friends and neighbours. House-bound individuals and those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions can be at increased risk for heat illness.

During this stretch of heat, we encourage our UCalgary community to enjoy the sunshine with family and friends, but in a safe and healthy manner. For more information, please visit the City of Calgary heat wave caution announcement.

David Keegan is an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and associate dean of Faculty Development and Performance at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is a member of the CSM’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health.