It’s a mid-July mid-afternoon and the movie “Wet, Hot American Summer” is playing at the Uptown. Outside, the beating heat radiates in waves off the sidewalk. It’s in the mid-90s, but with the humidity it feels like 100+. Across Lagoon Avenue, Emily Miller is keeping cool at the library. Her apartment isn’t air conditioned, and the new law school grad needs to prep for the state bar exam. A job as a tax attorney awaits her; today, though, the heat’s what’s been most taxing.
The brain is very sensitive to temperature. At 104o it can start to shut down, triggering other organs to follow. Early signs of heat stress – headache, dizziness, fatigue or nausea – should not be ignored. Your body is telling you, “Cool down, now!”
Every summer it gets hot here, sometimes for days in a row with little relief at night. If we lived in a southern state, our bodies might be used to it. But we don’t, and our bodies aren’t. So when hot summer days happen, it’s enough to make some of us sick – especially when we don’t take appropriate precautions.
A human body regulates its internal temperature at 98.6 degrees by radiating excess body heat into the air around it. “But when air temperatures, outdoors or in, rise to the 80s and 90s, it gets difficult for a body to cool itself,” explains Tracy Pepper, an emergency physician at Fairview Southdale and Ridges hospitals. “Exercise and exertion can quickly raise a body’s temperature, so when people don’t reduce their activities in hot and humid conditions, heat related illness can quickly set in.”
On this particular day, Emily rode her bike in the morning, but took an air-conditioned bus to and from a lunch date, then waited at the library until the cooler evening to bicycle back home. Making these kinds of activity adjustments can help a person beat the heat. Because the build-up of body heat is cumulative, just two hours of air-conditioning each day can make a real difference during an extended hot spell. Libraries, community centers, shopping malls, grocery stores and movie theaters are among the many common places where you can go to get cooled.
Elderly, infants and individuals with chronic health conditions are most at risk for heat stress and so need to be particularly careful to not get overheated. “But even athletes in good physical condition are susceptible to heat stress, exhaustion and even heat stroke,” says Dr. Pepper. “Kids playing summer sports or trying especially hard to make the team can often overexert and overheat because they’re more focused on the activity than on how they’re feeling.”
She recommends that sports participants designate “buddies” on the field who can watch for signs of heat stress in each other and suggest breaks to cool down and regularly drink water.
She also urges everyone to regularly check on homebound neighbors without air-conditioning and to offer them rides to cooler settings for a couple hours each day.
Back home in her un-air-conditioned apartment, Emily has a few stay-cool tricks of her own. On hot nights, she pulls a cloth sack of rice kernels from her freezer and sleeps with it under her neck. And on hot days? She sometimes goes to the freezer for a change of clothes, too. “A pair of cold jeans can cool you down pretty fast,” she laughs.