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Heat wave advice: How to stay cool (and safe) when it's sweltering — according to doctors

Woman holding a pink mini fan close up front view.
Experts suggest a mini fan as a key way to keep yourself cool during a heatwave. Photo: Getty

As yet another heat wave bears down on the US and Texas warns of possible blackouts with a “high potential” to declare an energy emergency, it's clear the hot weather is not letting up anytime soon. About 130 million people are under heat alerts in 22 states, according to the National Weather Service.

With record-breaking temperatures likely sticking around into September, heat safety is still as critical as ever. The mile-high mercury readings are not the only concern; “brutal humidity levels” are pushing heat indexes as high as 120°F in Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. The high humidity is making the "feels like" temperature even more important to pay attention to than the actual temperatures: The thermometer might read 94°F, but it may feel closer to 105°F -115°F once you step outside.

It's also important to remember that most heat-related injuries occur during the initial days and weeks of heat waves. Why? Because our bodies are not yet used to the higher heat and humidity. So when it gets extra hot, take baby steps into it: “It’s vital for individuals to acclimate themselves gradually to the heat and follow appropriate safety measures,” says Dr. Yovonne Covin, a Dallas-based primary care physician.

If you live somewhere where the heat let up and has now come back with a vengeance, take every precaution you can to protect yourself and vulnerable people around you from heat-related illness. To help us better understand how to be prepared for extreme heat, we spoke with physicians about the best ways to stay safe (and cool) when it’s sweltering.

Consider walking out of an air-conditioned building into the sweltering heat. The hot air hits your face and fills your lungs. A minute later, you feel the initial trickles of sweat roll down from your temples. This is your body beginning to acclimate to the unforgiving temperatures. At this point, adapting to the heat and listening to your body’s cues is very important. “Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can cause the body's temperature-regulating system to break down, which puts stress on organs such as the kidneys, brain, and heart,” explains Dr. David Shusterman, Chief Physician at NY Urology. A rapid pulse, cool clammy skin, headaches, nausea and dizziness may be signs of heat exhaustion, according to the CDC.

Our bodies have a natural mechanism to maintain a normal core temperature, typically ranging from 96.8°F to 99.5°F (36.0°C to 37.5°C). Sweating plays a vital role in reducing excess heat, but when we sweat profusely, our bodies experience an extreme loss of water and sodium. Staying hydrated is going to be your first defense against the heat. Your body needs to sweat to keep cool, but drinking only cold water may not suffice.

“Rapidly replenishing low body water levels with plain water can lead to water overload and low sodium levels,” explains Dr. Covin. "Severe drops in sodium can result in serious complications, including confusion, seizures, coma, and even mortality,” she says. When the heat is extreme, multiple experts recommended adding electrolyte powder packs or dissolvable electrolyte tablets to your water bottles. If you or a loved one spend extended periods in the heat, especially if you're exerting energy and sweating profusely, keep single-use packs of electrolytes with you to help maintain your body’s balance between water and sodium.

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Cooling towels work by directing heat away from the body through sweat evaporation. And experts say they're a quick way to cool down. “Applying cooling towels to areas near large blood vessels, such as the neck, underarms, or groin, can help regulate body temperature effectively,” says Dr. Covin.

Never used a cooling towel? It's easy. You wet the towel with water (it doesn’t even have to be cold water.) and it instantly begins to cool. In some cases, the towel will reach temps 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding air. You then press the towel on your skin and it immediately draws the heat away from that area of your body.

There are a plethora of portable cooling devices available that will simulate the body's natural cooling mechanism and provide quick relief. Compact handheld personal fans with misting features are a great option for on-the-go cooling during outdoor events, sports practices and games. For those going on camping trips, or prolonged outdoor activities, USB-capable portable air conditioners may be the right fit for your needs. A cool mist humidifier can also help provide much-needed relief from the heat and dryness associated with high temperatures. And don’t fret about needing plugs and extra batteries thanks to solar-charged portable generators and back-up battery banks.

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When you're spending prolonged time outdoors, finding a cool, shady spot should be top of mind. But what do you do when there is no shade to be found? You make it yourself. A great option, and something almost everyone has on hand, is an umbrella. Umbrellas offer immediate personal shade and protect your skin from the sun’s blistering rays. If you want to level up your umbrella game, misting umbrellas are a fantastic option. All it takes is a couple of batteries and a standard water bottle to turn the umbrella into a personal outdoor misting haven. For families where one umbrella won’t fit the bill, easy pop-up tents and awnings are a great option. These pop-up wonders are lightweight, easy to put up and take down and offer a large space for family and friends to gather under to stay cool and protected from the unforgiving heat and UV rays.

  • Breeze Life Golf Umbrella with Fan and Mister. Blocks 99.9% of UVA and UVB rays

If you suffer from a chronic disease, it may be best to completely limit outdoor activity until the heat subsides — at the very least, avoid the midday heat and sun. You should also consult with your physician to see if any medications you are taking will exacerbate your chances of heat stroke. “People living with chronic diseases need to be especially cautious in extreme heat, as their condition may make them more susceptible to the effects of high temperatures,” says Dr. Covin. “Additionally, people with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory problems are at an increased risk of dehydration and heat stroke when exposed to high temperatures over extended periods,” she says.

This heat is no joke and should be taken very seriously. And this is true for all ages, so protect yourself, your family and check in on vulnerable individuals who live alone or may not have the mobility or financial means to shelter in a cool place.