The arrival of pleasant weather in many parts of the country begs people to spend more time outdoors. As we lay poolside under the sun or exert energy planting flowers in the garden, our bodies require adequate fluids to prevent dehydration and heat-related illnesses. Failing to stay properly hydrated under heat conditions, especially upon physical exertion, puts one’s health at risk.
The act of secreting fluid from the skin through glands, also known as sweating or perspiring, is an essential function of the body. Sweating helps to regulate and maintain body temperature. During this biological process, sensors in the body tell the brain that we’re hot. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus acts as a master switch. It signals glands to sweat in order to lower body temperature. The pores of the skin open to release sweat, composed mainly of water and salts. As sweat evaporates, we cool down. Sweating also hydrates the skin and helps to maintain a balance of electrolytes in the body.
When the air is heavy with humidity, bodily sweat evaporates less efficiently than normal. As a result, there is rise in body temperature as heat becomes trapped. Thus, bodies exposed to humid conditions cool down less quickly. This is a main reason why we feel hot on days of high humidity. On dry days, sweat evaporates faster and carries away heat. Thus, it’s important to replace the fluids the body loses through sweating. When you don’t drink enough fluids on hot days, you may experience a decrease in sweat production and body temperature may rise. Staying hydrated is key to producing sweat to maintain a safe body temperature and avoiding symptoms of dehydration.
Dehydration is an abnormal loss of water from the body. It can occur from illness or physical exertion or happen when the body takes in less fluid than it loses. One obvious cause of water loss from the body is excessive sweating. This can lead to medical symptoms of dehydration and heat stroke. Mild dehydration symptoms can include dry mouth, increased thirst, headache, dry skin and more. If you begin to experience any mild symptoms, it’s important to drink fluids to rehydrate. Serious cases of dehydration can include excessive thirst, lack of sweat production, rapid heart rate and breathing, and more. For cases which are moderate to severe, it is vital to seek medical attention.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and requiring immediate care. The condition, also called sunstroke, involves delirium and dysfunctions of the central nervous system, and can lead to fever, coma, and death. Certain behaviors may impair the body’s ability to regulate heat, such as drinking alcohol or taking certain medications. Environmental factors such as heat waves and being homebound with a lack of air conditioning may also increase the risk of heat-related illnesses and/or death. Small children, those with preexisting health conditions, the elderly, and people with disabilities may face significantly higher heat-related incidences. During the summer months, frequently check in on friends and neighbors. Be sure to provide pets access to fresh water. And don’t forget to stay hydrated!
There are many schools of thought on how much water people should consume per day. However, most doctors will suggest that people tune into their bodies and drink when they are thirsty and at regular intervals throughout the day. Intake of fluids should increase with exercise and when spending time in the heat or humidity. With aging, it’s a good idea to address your specific water and nutritional needs with your medical professional. Older people with faulty thirst mechanisms should have their water intake carefully monitored to avoid health issues.