11 Ways to Stay Safe During a Heat Wave

High humidity and triple-digit temperatures can be deadly, especially if there's no AC. Learn the best ways to stay healthy and hydrated during a heat wave.
Stacey L. Nash Avatar
Close up of thermometer reading 100 degrees Farenheit

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Warm weather feels great after a long, cold winter. But the hot, lazy days of summer also bring heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and other heat-related illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 600 people die of heat-related illnesses each year, and those deaths are largely preventable. Protect yourself and your family from the dangerous effects of excessive heat with these tips for making it safely through a heat wave.

1. Drink before you’re thirsty.

older African American man outside drinking from water bottle

Heat-related illnesses set in when the body cannot cool itself, and the body cools itself primarily through sweat. When the body doesn’t have enough water to produce enough sweat, health can take a sudden turn for the worse. Particularly during hot weather, it’s important to stay well hydrated by sipping water throughout the day. While it may be tempting to chug ice water, doing so can cause cramps, so opt for cool but not frigid water.

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2. Stay indoors.

Stand up fan in living room of house

Stay in an air-conditioned space during the hottest times of the day. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, head to public spaces like libraries and shopping malls, but note that such spaces may be off-limits due to restrictions or may be too crowded for your comfort level. If that’s the case, consider purchasing a window AC or portable air-conditioning unit, or even try putting a bowl of ice in front of a fan for a little homemade air conditioning. In a pinch, you can get relief by placing wet towels or washcloths on the back of your neck or resting your feet in cool water.

3. Limit physical activity during the hottest part of the day.

Close up of small white terrier being walked

A heat wave calls for a change in routine. Physical exertion in the late morning, afternoon, and even early evening can cause body temperature to rise to unhealthy levels. Instead, schedule yard work, workouts, and other active pursuits for early morning or later evening hours, when the mercury begins to drop. If you can’t fit your exercise routine to those times, think about getting a gym membership so you can take advantage of the air conditioning.

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4. Schedule outdoor activities early and late in the day.

Middle age white woman going for a walk in the morning

During a heat wave, be cautious about being outside. When temperatures are skyrocketing, you can suffer from heat exhaustion or heat stroke even when you’re not doing anything particularly strenuous—even if you’re just sitting outside. If outdoor activities are unavoidable, schedule them for later in the day when temps start to drop. When you’re hosting a gathering, give guests plenty of ways to stay hydrated and out of the sun. Pick an area with shade trees, or set up pop-up canopies or tents so you can escape the heat.

5. Dress light and loose.

close up of blue pink and orange dry-fit shirts on hangers

Clothing plays a pivotal role in the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. Help it out by wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Light colors reflect heat, and loose clothing allows the body’s natural cooling system to stay effective. Picking the right clothing also protects your skin from sunburn. Opt for long sleeves, hats, and SPF-protective clothing to save your skin from painful damage.

6. Eat light meals.

close up of watermelon slicees

Because the body has to work hard to digest heavy, fatty foods, a heat wave is not a good time to enjoy a big, greasy burger. You’ll just be pushing the body to create more heat. Instead, eat light, well-balanced meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. And though we’ve already said it, it’s worth saying again: Drink lots of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

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7. Avoid drinking alcohol.

overhead shot of open beer cans

Not all liquids are equally hydrating during a heat wave. Alcohol changes the way the body functions, especially the kidneys, and it blocks an antidiuretic hormone that tells the body to reabsorb water. Consequently, alcohol has a diuretic effect, causing the body to pass more urine than the volume of alcohol ingested. Also, consumption of large quantities of alcohol can lead to loss of fluid through vomiting.

8. Avoid caffeinated and sugary drinks.

mason jar of iced tea and glass of soda

Alcohol isn’t the only drink you should avoid during a heat wave. It’s a good idea to stay away from caffeinated and sugary drinks, too. Caffeine irritates the bladder, which can cause an increase in urine frequency, and it can have a diuretic effect on some drinkers. Sugary drinks, too, are poor choices in hot weather as they can stop the body from absorbing water. Even though you’re drinking, your body can’t use that liquid the way it needs to. In a heat wave, water is your best bet for hydration.

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9. Replace electrolytes.

energy drinks lined up

The body loses electrolytes—essential minerals like sodium and potassium—when we sweat. If your body is working hard for a long period of time, it may need more than just water. Drinks like Pedialyte, Liquid I.V., and low-sugar sports drinks contain sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other nutrients that replenish the body’s electrolytes. Not all sports drinks are the same, however. Always check the nutritional information to make sure the product you’ve picked up isn’t loaded with sugar.

10. Recognize the signs of heatstroke and heat exhaustion.

woman cooling herself off with fan

Protect yourself and your family by knowing the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Their symptoms are similar and should always be taken seriously. Watch for dizziness, headache, nausea, loss of consciousness, and a fast or weakening pulse. With heat exhaustion, the skin is cold and pale, and feels clammy. Once heatstroke kicks in, body temperatures rise to 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and the skin becomes hot, red, dry, or damp because it stops sweating. If you or anyone else shows these symptoms, get medical attention immediately.

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11. Take a cool bath or shower.

shower head running

Extreme heat makes it hard for the body to cool itself. If you don’t have air conditioning and a room fan isn’t cutting it, hop into a cool bath or shower. Use cool water to bring the body temperature down, as an ice-cold bath could cause shivering, which heats up the body.