The dog days of summer are upon us, and from the forecast, it looks like they’re here to stay for a while. Along with taking care of our gardens during these days of high heat and humidity, more importantly, we need to take care of ourselves. We may be wilting more than our flowers. Most of us know about heat related illness, but if inattentive to the warning signs, we can quickly find ourselves in dire straits.
As far as coping with the heat, humidity is not our friend. Humid conditions interfere with the body’s natural cooling process – sweat evaporation. When sweat can’t evaporate, the body can’t cool itself adequately. The National Weather Service factors temperature and humidity to come up with a heat index, or what the outside temperature “feels like.” The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has recommendations as far as caution when working in higher heat index temperatures.
Some people have added challenges when trying to keep cool. Some factors increasing the risk for heat illness include:
- Medical conditions like diabetes, kidney and heart problems, high blood pressure and pregnancy. Heat can also make symptoms worse for individuals coping with Multiple Sclerosis.
- Use of certain prescription medicines like tranquilizers, water pills, Parkinson’s disease medications, and drugs used to treat mental illness.
- Illegal drug use.
- Poor physical fitness or lack of experience working in heat, outdoors, or doing heavy work.
- Alcohol use.
- Clothing that is tight, dark, or heavy.
- Wearing heavy equipment and clothing (sports padding and helmets; police/fire, personal, industrial protective equipment and clothing).
- Dehydration (not having enough fluids in the body).
- Age four and younger and 65 and older.
- Prior history of heat-related illness.
There is also some evidence that, as people age, the body has a more difficult time recovering from heat exposure the day before. So if you are middle aged and exposed to hot conditions for several days in a row, the effects can be cumulative, making it more likely that you could have heat related issues as the hot days go on.
The best way to stave off heat illness is to “stay hydrated,” but what exactly does that mean? The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is:
- About 125 oz (3.7 liters) of fluids for men
- About 91 oz (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women
Roughly 80% of fluid intake is from drinking. The other 20% comes from the food we eat. When we sweat, we need more than what is normally recommended. The CDC recommends drinking 1 cup (8 ounces) of water every 15–20 minutes, when working in the heat. Drinking sports drinks can be helpful, especially if you experience heat cramps.
Some foods can also help you hydrate. Cucumber, celery, watermelon, strawberries, kiwi and pears contain a large percentage of water as well as vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that can alleviate cramping. Avoid consuming large amounts of protein, fiber and sugar. These take more of the body’s energy away from cooling itself to digest these foods.
Along with staying hydrated, take frequent breaks, out of the sun and heat. A good rule of thumb is 15 minutes break for every 1 hour of work. The higher the heat index, the more you need to shorten your work interval and lengthen your break time. Work smarter, not harder, especially in the heat. Plan the most strenuous work for the cooler part of the day or week. Use equipment instead of manpower whenever feasible. Ask for help. If it’s a bigger job, ask for more help. Many hands make quicker work. If you don’t have help, incorporate the buddy system. Make sure someone, a family member, friend, neighbor or coworker, knows you are working in the heat and checks on you periodically. Some of us with strong work ethics don’t know when to quit or may not be aware of our physical state. Don’t be afraid to be a nosy neighbor. Take them something cold to drink. Distract them with some conversation in the shade (from a safe distance, of course). If you, or someone you encounter is experiencing a heat related illness, take it seriously, before it becomes serious. Be safe out there! We want to continue to see your smiling faces grace the Wellfield Botanic Gardens.
Amy Myers, Lead Horticulturist