Summer safety: Tips to avoid heat stroke, sunburn and more

Swimming kids

During potentially dangerous hot summer months, it's important to remain aware of health and safety while spending time outside.

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

The most common heat-related medical issues are heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat syncope (loss of consciousness or fainting), sunburn and heat rash. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are the most serious conditions and can be life-threatening, but all of the above can be worrisome for you and your family. 

Cars can be more than 30 degrees warmer inside than the outside air. Do not leave your children in the car waiting for you. The majority of heat stroke, or hyperthermia (body overheating), cases that we see in the emergency department result from parents leaving children in the car. Every few minutes can be critical. Even if a child survives an episode of hyperthermia from being left in a hot car, they may experience brain damage or other complications.

Additionally, parents should be careful in the warmer months to not over-bundle their babies, who need only one more layer of clothes than what an adult would be comfortable wearing.

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 call your doctor or 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 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 especially at midday and wearing cool clothes that cover exposed skin. If sunburn occurs a a cool bath and moisturizing lotions specific for sunburn can help make the pain better. Everyone, regardless of skin color or tone, should wear broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Overheating in the summer months can happen easily. Muscle cramping and heavy sweating that only lasts less than an hour can be managed at home with increased hydration (drinking), 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?

Keeping cool on hot days is one of the most important factors in preventing heat-related illness. Air conditioning can help even for short periods of time. if possible, stay in an air-conditioned area during the hottest hours of the day, 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. At home, keep fans running and use a wet wash cloth to cool the skin and aim the breeze on you and your over heated family members.

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, so pay attention to overheating. 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.

How to prevent drowning

Hanging poolside with your friends and their kids? One of the best ways to prevent drowning is to designate one adult to watch your group of kids in the water.

The key to preventing drowning is supervision. It needs to be a responsible adult watching, so if you have a lot of people, it's really important to have one person to pay attention to the kids in the pool. Don't assume that some else is watching your children in the pool.

If it is your turn to watch the swimmer, this means putting down a phone, book, or any other potential distraction.

If you are outside in a lake, pond or river, it is good to familiarize yourself with specific surroundings, since wildlife, rocks, currents and other potential dangers differ in lakes, rivers and other areas.

In addition to swim lessons, make sure you have Coast Guard-approved life jackets on hand. Most of the cute arm floaties and inflatable devices may act as swim aids, but they're not designed to keep peoples' faces up and out of the water the way life jackets do. But remember, life jackets shouldn't replace supervision!

Alison Tothy, MD

Alison Tothy, MD

Alison Tothy, MD, is associate professor of pediatrics in the pediatric emergency medicine department at Comer Children’s.

Learn more about Dr. Tothy