As the summer sun sends temperatures climbing, it’s easy to figure out that athletes are at risk for dehydration and heat-related illness. But they’re not the only ones in danger, said an Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist.
“It’s not just long-distance runners and football players doing two-a-days who need to worry about dehydration and heat exhaustion,” said OMRF physician-researcher Eliza Chakravarty, M.D. “Extreme temperatures can affect all of us.”
Dehydration, in particular, can sneak up on people, said Chakravarty, because our bodies are always using water. In addition to losing moisture through such processes as sweating and expelling waste, we also lose it in less visible ways like breathing, which sends water vapor out of the system.
As the water level decreases, it causes changes to organs and other vital fluids. Dehydration causes blood to thicken and makes it harder for the kidneys to process waste. Coupled with overexposure to heat, it can be deadly.
Symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, headaches, thirst, and, in extreme cases, loss of consciousness. Heat exhaustion, a precursor to heat stroke, has similar symptoms and more—heavy sweating, rapid breathing and a weak pulse.
“The tricky thing about heat exhaustion is how quickly it sneaks up on you,” she said. “Even if you’re not exerting yourself, just standing in the hot sun for extended periods of time can cause problems.”
To avoid heat exhaustion, Chakravarty suggests keeping track of how much time you’re spending in the heat and wearing light and loose-fitting clothing, which allows sweat to evaporate and cool the body. Find shade, take advantage of fans and air conditioners when possible, and always allow your body to cool down before you go back out in the sun.
And, of course, be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
“If you’re mostly getting rid of water through sweating, sports drinks make sense, because they also replenish electrolytes and salt expelled by the body,” she said. Chakravarty emphasized that when it comes to fluid replacement, sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade are superior to energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster. “The caffeine and sugar in drinks like Red Bull actually require people to drink more water to offset them.”
But, she said, if you’re not engaged in vigorous physical activity, “Water is all you need.”
While hydration is key, don’t overdo it, either. “Too little water can be dangerous, but so can too much,” said Chakravarty. “Good health is all about balance.”