It’s July in South Florida and that usually means that the “feels like” heat index is near, at or over 100 degrees. If you exercise outdoors or indulge in physical activity in this climate – even if its gardening or something that seems harmless — you need to take precautions to avoid serious harm, such has severe muscle cramping, dehydration and heat stroke.
“It’s hard to do much of anything outside without breaking a sweat, and sweating is the way the body tries to keep itself cool,” said Jonathan Fialkow, M.D.,  chief population health officer for Baptist Health and chief of cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute .
“But if temperatures and humidity are too high it may not be enough to keep your body from overheating. People who work or exercise outdoors need to know the warning signs of heat-related illnesses and what to do if their body is overheating.”
During a recent Baptist HealthTalk, Exercising Outside Safely This Summer , Dr. Fialkow spoke with Michael Swartzon, M.D. , primary care sports medicine physician with Baptist Health Orthopedic Care , regarding the warning signs of being over-heated and dehydrated and when to stop, rest or seek emergency medical help when being physically active outdoors.
A common sign of potential dehydration is muscles cramps, or when a muscle suddenly goes into involuntary contractions or spasms.
“One of the most common things we see is cramping of muscles due to heat and dehydration,” explains Dr. Swartzon. “You’re going out there and you’re trying to do something and then the muscle just spasms. Sometimes the spasm is just uncomfortable, but occasionally the cramps can reach the level where you physically can’t use that muscle. And it hurts so much that, if it’s one of the leg muscles, you can’t walk or stand on it. It’s very unfortunate when it happens. It’s scary, but it is temporary and will go away.”
Beyond cramping, lightheadedness is a warning sign that requires immediate attention.
“Occasionally you’ll start noticing with people who are in the early stages, and they’ll get lightheaded,” explains Dr. Swartzon. “They have already been sweating for a long time and they might faint or pass out or collapse. Obviously, that’s serious because if you’re running outdoors, you could collapse in the wrong place. Not only hurt yourself with the fall, but put yourself in harm’s way, whether it’s a crossing of a street or being next to someone else and injure somebody.”
If someone is exercising or gardening or taking part in some other outdoor activity – and they feel lightheaded, then what should they do?
“The first thing you want to do is get yourself out of the sun and the heat,” said Dr. Swartzon. “So, either in the shade or indoors in an air-conditioned place, if possible. Cool off by drinking cold water, and most importantly, try and get some help. Even just having someone there in case you don’t do well to call an ambulance can be very helpful, and that person can save your life. One of the things that happens is that the dehydration or the heat illness just goes from getting a headache to having a lot more serious, neurological issues … like seizures. And your body temperature rises to the point where you can die. And it’s not something that is easily recognizable, and you don’t know how fast it’s going to happen.”
Who’s most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses?
“Anyone taking a medication that can affect the water content in their body, whether it’s a specific blood pressure medication or something on your kidneys, you need to just be careful,” said Dr. Swartzon. “Especially if the medication’s new. If you’ve been on it for a while, chances are your body has already adapted. The people that are most at risk are those who have not spent much time outdoors. People who are coming down here from the North. So, if you have family coming to visit you, and you’re used to being on your boat all the time and they’re not, you need to watch out for them. Make sure they’re wearing a hat, they’re getting hydrated, they’re wearing their sunscreen.”