15 Ultimate Beat-the-Heat Tips

byJames Hubbard, MD, MPH

In the Deep South right now, it’s about heat wave time, otherwise known as the season of year when you step outside and right into a sauna. I know because I grew up in Mississippi.

If you also grew up in an area that gets really hot, you may think you know everything there is to know to beat the heat. But you haven’t read this post! I bet I can surprise you—at least once?

Even people used to working in the heat all day can suffer dangerously come that first heat wave—when the temperature and humidity suddenly soars 5–10 degrees or hotter. And imagine having to be outside after a disaster or while stranded in the wilderness, with no chance for air conditioning.

  1. That fan may not be cooling you, even if it feels good. Once the temperature reaches the 90s, fans have questionable effectiveness in cooling your core. Some people think fans can make you hotter by constantly bombarding you with hot air. So don’t depend on them as your sole beat-the-heat method.
  2. A heat rash isn’t just annoying; it makes it harder for you to cool off. It clogs up sweat glands so they don’t work properly. So treat it if you get one.
  3. Exhaustion can unpredictably become stroke. Heat exhaustion can gradually, quietly turn into heatstroke, or the symptoms of the two disorders can overlap. And heatstroke often is deadly—sometimes no matter what you do. So it’s very important to know the early signs of heat exhaustion and take immediate action to cool down.
  4. You could die before you realize you’re too hot. One of the early signs of heat exhaustion can be confusion. If that happens, you may not realize you’re getting too hot. So keep a buddy around. A companion might recognize this and be better able to advise you on what to do.

Warning: Heatstroke

If you have any symptoms of a heatstroke, call 911 if it’s available. Here’s a post on some symptoms and what you can do if you can’t get expert help.

What’s Worse?

Head-to-head heat comparisons

1. Which is worse for heat: a humid or dry climate?

Answer: Both.

Humid climates are worse because the more the more humid the air, the slower the sweat evaporates. The slower the sweat evaporates, the less it cools you down.

Dry climates are worse because the sweat evaporates quicker. That’s good to cool you down but can dehydrate you pretty fast. Drink lots of fluids.

2. Which is worse: staying in a steady, high level of heat all day or going inside periodically for a shock of air conditioning?

Answer: Staying hot is worse.

If you can go inside to the air conditioning, do it. That’s one of the most effective ways to beat the heat. Some people might think getting cold, then hot isn’t good for you. But the most important thing is not to get too hot. And there’s nothing like good old air conditioning to cool you down.

The tip: Stay inside, in the air conditioning.

The reason: People survived for thousands of years with no air conditioning, so surely we can too, right? Well, yes, but people also died without air conditioning (and made houses differently, etc., but that’s another post).

As I’ve said, air conditioning is one of the most effective ways to cool off. And no matter how in shape they are or how much they’re used to staying outside, anyone can succumb to the heat during a heat wave. That’s because the body has to slowly acclimate to hot weather, and a sudden heat wave doesn’t allow for that.

Fan Tip

If you’re using a fan, try putting ice in front of it so it blows cooler air.

If you don’t have air conditioning, consider going to the mall or a “cooling down” area in your city, if it offers those.

The tip: Take frequent breaks in the shade.

The reason: The harder you work, the more heat your body generates. You’re running your own, personal furnace. (This is the same reason you’re advised to do the heavy work in the morning and afternoon, the earlier and later the better.)

Don’t wait until you think you need a break. You may be too late.

The tip: Go jump in a lake.

The reason: Water evaporating off your body cools it off. But also, if the water is cooler than the air temperature, that provides a nice, cool treat. Instead of going for a swim, you could douse your head with cool water or take a lukewarm shower. Some people suggest keeping a cool, wet bandana around your neck.

Frequent Fluid Questions

Q. How much liquid should I drink in the heat?

A. A lot. This is essential.

On average, if you’re hot and sweating, drink two to four 8-ounce glasses of cool, noncaffeinated fluids per hour. If you’re really working hard, increase that to as much as 2 quarts (64 ounces, or half a gallon). Don’t just gulp them down all at once. Instead, try to drink something about every 15–20 minutes so you won’t make yourself sick.

Q. Should I add salt to the water?

A. Yes. If you’re drinking only water, add about ¼ teaspoon of salt to the first couple of glasses. (Talk to your doctor if you’re on a low-salt diet). Or just eating a little food could add the needed salt.

If you’re drinking sports drinks, though, consider diluting them half-and-half with water or alternating one sports drink with the same amount of water. After more than one sports drink, you’re actually risking a body overload of electroytes, sugar, and other chemicals.

Q. What about coconut water?

A. It’s in vogue now and appears to be a great alternative, containing sugar, sodium, and potassium, but less than sports drinks. Personally, I don’t like the taste, and taste can become very important when you’re trying to drink a high volume of fluids.

Q. How do I know if I’m getting dehydrated?

A. One of the earliest signs is darkened urine. So keep an eye on the color. Other signs, like dizziness or a dry mouth, may come early or late. Urine color is more consistent. Notice what it looks like normally. If it starts getting darker, your kidneys are trying to conserve water. That’s a good clue to drink up.

Q. I hate sweating.

A. That’s not a question. But embrace that sweat. Your body’s trying to cool you off through evaporation. Don’t wipe it all off unless you’re going into the air conditioning.

On the other hand, sweat that drips off your body is not helping the cooling a bit. So, you can certainly wipe some off if it makes you more comfortable.

Q. I read on the Internet that drinking a hot beverage will cool me off quicker. True?

A. Don’t believe this claim. At least not for when you’re out in the heat.

The theory goes that drinking hot beverages eating or hot food heats your core body temperature, which triggers you to sweat. And sweating cools you off. So you get an early start on sweating and cool off quicker.

The big problem is that, as claimed, you’re heating up your core body temperature. And that temperature affects whether your organs work.

If you’re hot, making the core hotter is exactly what you don’t want do. When your core gets too hot, your organs stop working, and so do all your body’s methods of trying to cool you off. At that point you’re having a heatstroke.

Q. I also heard that drinking an ice-cold beverage can cause stomach cramps. True?

A. In some people, yes. So cool, rather than ice cold, is the way to go for most. At minimum, you should be able to put a drink in the shade and get it down to air temperature.