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This summer has brought with it a series of heat waves that have taken hold across America and Canada, including unprecedented temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.

These heat waves are not only uncomfortable. They also present a major health threat.

If you find yourself exposed to sweltering summer heat, it’s important to take steps to keep cool and avoid overheating.

Just a few tweaks can keep you healthy and happy while you enjoy the sun.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), heat waves come with several potential health dangers, including:

“Heat impacts the human body [through] a combination of external or environmental heat and the internal body heat generated by the metabolic process,” says Kathleen O’Grady Winston, PhD, RN, the dean of the College of Nursing at University of Phoenix.

This “can impact the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.”

According to O’Grady Winston, these issues usually happen when the body can’t cool down through its usual methods, typically sweating.

“When this occurs, the body temperature rises faster than the body’s metabolic system is able to cool,” she says. “The outcomes associated with a rise in temperatures and exposure to heat over a duration of time are significant and can result in damage to the vital organs.”

Although everyone can develop heat-related illnesses, some people are at greater risk, such as:

  • older adults
  • people with chronic conditions
  • children under 4
  • people with mental health conditions

Furthermore, situations and circumstances can also increase risk, such as:

  • being sunburned
  • consuming alcohol or substances
  • not drinking enough liquids

Despite the risks associated with heat waves, there are some ways to stay healthy and avoid overheating, dehydration, and other heat-related illnesses.

Head for the air con

One of the easiest ways to stay cool is to spend your time in air-conditioned environments, like:

  • malls
  • libraries
  • grocery stores
  • public gathering spaces

“Spend a portion of each day in an air-conditioned space,” O’Grady Winston advises. “Electric fans will no longer be helpful when the temperature is elevated above 90 degrees.”

The WHO recommends spending at least 2 to 3 hours of each day in a cool place, such as an air-conditioned building.

Limit outdoor activities

Any activities that need to be done outside should be limited to the cooler hours.

According to O’Grady Winston and the WHO, 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. are best. O’Grady Winston also suggests avoiding strenuous activities during other times of day, and staying in the shade whenever possible.

Slather on the sunscreen

It’s important to wear sunscreen every day, especially when it’s hot out. Sunburns can intensify heat-related issues.

“A sunburn inhibits the body’s ability to cool itself down and can contribute to dehydration,” O’Grady Winston explains.

This is because a sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface. The extra heat results in increased evaporation of the body’s fluids.

If you do get sunburned, it’s important to drink plenty of water.

Keep hydrated

Drinking a lot of fluids, especially water, will keep you hydrated. It helps to avoid alcohol and drinks high in sugar when you can, too.

“Sports drinks help replace salt and minerals lost through perspiration (sweating),” O’Grady Winston says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), total daily water intake can come from a variety of beverages and foods. Daily fluid intake recommendations vary by:

  • age
  • sex
  • bodyweight
  • pregnancy and breastfeeding status

As general guidance, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has recommended 3.7 liters or 125 ounces for men and 2.7 liters or 91 ounces for women for total water intake from all foods and liquids.

During a heatwave, it’s important to meet this minimum — and then some. You can also opt for beverages made with cooling herbs to help take the heat down.

Dress for the climate

Dress for the weather with light, breathable clothes, plus sun protection, like hats, scarves, and sunglasses. Bonus points if the hat is wide-brimmed!

O’Grady Winston recommends light colors and loose-fitting clothes. You can also look for clothes with an ultraviolet protective factor (UPF) to prevent UV rays from reaching your skin.

Eat light meals

Another tip to stay cool is to choose meals on the light side, such as salads or sushi. Cooler foods are a good idea too. Think: chicken salad vs. a roast.

Food intake and digestion generates heat in the body. This is one reason appetites are often suppressed in hot environments.

O’Grady Winston says that opting for lighter fare helps you avoid increasing heat through the metabolic processing.

“Eat small amounts, and eat every few hours with protein in each meal or snack,” she adds.

Take cold showers

One age-old and effective way to keep the body cool is to use cold water.

Take a cold shower or bath, or try one of these methods recommended by the WHO:

Check in on others

When the thermometer climbs, remember to check in on your family and community, especially those who are primarily alone (like older adults or those who are sick).

“Make sure family, friends, and neighbors understand heat waves and the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses,” O’Grady Winston says.

According to the CDC, signs and symptoms of heat-related illness can include:

  • heavy sweating
  • high body temperature (at least 103°F or 39.4°C)
  • cold, clammy, or dry skin
  • pale or red appearance (on white skin)
  • fast, weak pulse
  • nausea or vomiting
  • tiredness or weakness
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • fainting or passing out

Despite images of playing summer sports or lounging poolside, heat waves don’t make for much fun outside.

There are plenty of activities you can still enjoy in summer while staying out of the heat, like:

  • playing board games or doing a jigsaw
  • hosting a movie marathon
  • swimming at an indoor pool
  • seeing the latest movie
  • going on a shopping trip
  • exploring a museum or art gallery
  • heading to the bowling alley or arcade
  • hiding out with a book at your local café or ice cream shop

Heat waves can be a serious health threat, but you can avoid the risk with a few tweaks to your summer plans.

Take the party indoors, either at home or in a public space with air-conditioning, and drink plenty of water. Avoid strenuous activity and opt for sun protection with sunscreen, UPF clothing, and shade.

Remember to check in on loved ones who may need extra support, especially older adults or people who are sick.

By following these safety tips, you can still enjoy your summer while staying safe.

Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She’s written extensively for a range of publications, covering everything from politics and mental health to nostalgic sandwiches and the state of her own vagina. You can reach Marnie via Twitter, Instagram, or her website.