Beat the heat: How to stay safe in the summer sun

Beach chair

During potentially dangerous hot summer months, it is important to remain aware of health and safety while spending time outside. We asked UChicago Medicine emergency medicine physician John Purakal, MD, about his top recommendations for heat safety.

What are the top heat-related medical issues people face in the Chicago area?

The most common heat-related medical issues we see are heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat syncope (loss of consciousness), sunburn and heat rash. Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are the most serious conditions and can be life-threatening.

When should I call for help if I am having heat-related symptoms?

There are many symptoms that should be cause for concern and lead to medical evaluation. Some of these include a body temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or skin that is hot, red, dry or particularly damp. Symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, confusion, loss of consciousness or severe muscle cramping should also lead to prompt medical evaluation. Even if these symptoms are mild but last more than an hour, you should seek medical care. Also, if you have a known history of heart disease or diabetes, are of very young or old age, or have a history of heat-related illness, you should seek care very soon upon feeling any of these symptoms.

For symptoms that don't require urgent medical care, what are some at-home remedies for individuals negatively reacting to summer heat?

Sunburn is commonplace and usually can be managed at home by staying out of the sun, wearing cool clothes or taking a cool bath and using moisturizing lotions specific for sunburn. Muscle cramping and heavy sweating not lasting more than one hour can be managed at home with increased hydration, moving to a cool place, and not returning to heat until symptoms have completely resolved. Finally, heat rash can result from exposure to high temperatures. Keep the rash dry and use skin powders like baby powder for relief.

How do I prevent other issues related to heat?

Air conditioning is one of the most important factors in preventing heat-related illness, even for short periods of time. One should stay in an air-conditioned area during the hottest hours of the day, if possible. If you don't have air conditioning in your home, go to a public place such as a shopping mall or a library to stay cool. Cooling stations are also available in many large cities for people of all ages. Wear light, loose-fitting clothing. Drink water early or often. You should not wait until you are thirsty to hydrate. You should avoid unnecessary hard work or activities if you are outside or in a building without air conditioning. Studies have found that fatal consequences can result from working outdoors, even at temperatures in the high 80s. Finally, never leave any person or animal in a non-ventilated, parked car, for any period of time, as temperatures can very quickly rise drastically.

John Purakal, MD

John Purakal, MD

John Purakal, MD, is an emergency medicine physician. He also founded UChicago ROCK (Raising Our Community’s Knowledge), a free health education initiative covering common health concerns aimed at the South Side community surrounding University of Chicago Medicine.

Learn more about Dr. Purakal