When the weather forecast reads “hazy, hot and humid,” every part of your body, from your hair (if it’s not frizzing) to your toes goes limp. It’s not just your imagination, either. Summer’s heat, especially when it’s prolonged and thick with humidity, can really take a toll on you mentally and physically.

“What we worry about most on hot days and, especially during a string of them, is heat stroke, which is preventable, and before that happens, people usually suffer from heat exhaustion, a milder form of heat stroke,” says Ana Tuya Fulton, MD, FACP, chief of Internal Medicine at Butler Hospital. “But, even just plain hot weather can affect our moods, our bodies and our personalities.”

This, she explains, is because of the body’s need for chemical balance.

“The brain’s hypothalamus regulates temperature by various chemicals. In extreme heat, the balance is thrown off and the brain and central nervous system are off balance,” she says, noting that the resulting emotional feelings can be:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiousness
  • Depression
  • Laziness
  • Exhaustion
  • And, in more extreme cases, confusion and more severe symptoms

In addition, Dr. Fulton says the body has physical reactions to extreme heat and humidity.

Warning signs

Early signs of too much heat exposure – heat rash, dry skin, sunburn, dry mouth, or dizziness – are each a sign for you to seek the comfort of air conditioning or another respite from the heat.

The first stage of medical trouble related to the heat is heat exhaustion. Signs of heat exhaustion can include:

  • Feeling overly tired
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Muscle cramps
  • Irritability

“People should remember to stay hydrated with fluids and electrolytes and seek air conditioning, a cool shower or a dip in the pool,” Dr. Fulton explains.

The second stage of heat-related trouble would be heat stroke, which is much more severe and requires medical attention. Signs can include:

  • Confusion
  • Dry skin
  • Feeling hot to the touch
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Muscle cramps or spasms due to the lack of electrolytes
  • Less urination because the kidneys are holding onto fluids, producing less urine

Staying cool

Dr. Fulton offers a few tips for avoiding heat exhaustion and heat stroke:

  • Avoid outdoor activities during the hottest part of the day
  • Wear loose-fitting, light clothing
  • Drink about 64 ounces of water a day if you’re staying cool indoors, but add fluids that contain electrolytes like Gatorade if you’re going to be outside

“Many people have jobs that require them to be outside more in the heat, and it’s important that they also replace the salt in their body that they will lose through sweating,” Dr. Fulton says. “A good rule of thumb when working outdoors during a heat wave is to drink 8 to 16 ounces of water/Gatorade per hour. Also, take breaks, at least 15 minutes at a time, in the shade or, even better, in an air conditioned space.”

If you do think you or someone else is suffering from heat exhaustion, she suggests cooling off and hydrating as soon as possible, especially since ignoring the warning signs of heat exhaustion can lead to the more severe heat stroke. Go into an air conditioned space, even it’s the mall, a movie theatre or your vehicle if you are working. Use ice packs, take a cool shower or buy a cooling vest.

If symptoms do not improve or you suspect heat stroke, seek medical care from your primary care physician or at an emergency room immediately. Kent Hospital’s Emergency Department and Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island’s Emergency Department are always open.

Please do not rely on the information contained here for diagnosing or treating any illness, condition, or disorder. If emergency medical or mental health care is needed, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.