What you should never ever do in a heat wave

A heat wave has blanketed several parts of the country recently, and now it’s affecting the West. More than 25 million people in California, Nevada, and Arizona are under excessive heat watches, warnings, or advisories.

The National Weather Service is encouraging people in Los Angeles to be aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke and to try to stay cool as much as possible.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The American Red Cross offers a list of things people should do to be safe during a heat wave, including obvious recommendations, such as drinking plenty of fluids, staying indoors, wearing loose-fitting and light-colored clothing, avoiding strenuous exercise outside during the hottest part of the day, and taking frequent breaks if you work outside. But some of its other advice is a little confusing. Among other things, the Red Cross says it’s important to follow these guidelines in a heat wave:

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

  • Eat small meals and eat often.

  • Avoid extreme temperature changes.

These aren’t arbitrary recommendations, health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Both alcohol and caffeine are diuretics and can promote fluid loss, further exacerbating your chances of dehydration,” she says. Smaller meals may be better than larger meals during a heat wave because larger meals take longer to digest and could generate excess heat in your body, Wider explains.

As for avoiding extreme temperature changes, there is some evidence that going from very hot to very cold temperatures can put stress on the body and cause dry eyes, respiratory issues, and muscle spasms, especially in people who are sick or have compromised immune systems, Wider says. That sounds hard to do when you’re moving from scorching temperatures outside to air conditioning indoors, but Wider says setting your thermostat to 75 degrees or so will help (and it may also keep your AC from being too taxed in the heat).

Since it’s unlikely that people are going to give up their daily cup of coffee, change up their eating habits due to the weather, and keep from rushing into air conditioning when it’s sweltering outside, exactly how important are these unusual tips? They’re helpful but not crucial for the average person who doesn’t have an underlying illness, Wider says.

In general, it’s really important to try to limit your exposure to extreme heat, stay well hydrated, and avoid exercising outdoors in a heat wave, Brian Schulz, MD, sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When you’re exercising, you’re also elevating your body temperature,” he explains. “Your body already has a harder time controlling its temperature when it’s hot outside.”

It’s important to look out for early signs of heat exhaustion, such as dry mouth, stopping sweating when you should be sweating, getting chills, and feeling exhausted or fatigued, Schulz says. If you have any of those, you need to drink plenty of fluids and get indoors immediately.

Common sense is important, and using it during a heat wave should keep you safe. “Just don’t take these precautions lightly,” Wider says. “Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can happen to anyone.”

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