Extreme Heat and Heart Diseases: Staying safe

Extreme heat poses great danger to people with chronic conditions including heart diseases. Find out how you can stay safe below-

Extreme heat and Heart diseases

Unusually hot temperatures have become more common in recent decades and this is expected to continue due to climate change and the gradual elevation of the earth’s temperature. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the interaction of high heat and heart disease contributes to about a quarter of heat-related deaths. Even though extreme heat affects everyone, people with heart diseases are at greater risk of hospitalization or death. 

Healthy people can handle the body’s response to high temperatures without a problem but people with heart diseases such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, congenital heart disease and those who have experienced a heart attack are at great danger of suffering from heat stroke.

Extreme heat and Heat Stroke

Heat stroke occurs when the body overheats usually as a result of sustained exposure to or prolonged physical activity in high temperatures. 

The most serious form can occur at a body temperature of 40C or higher. Some of the signs and symptoms of heat stroke include: high body temperature, difficulty breathing, unusual behavior such as delirium, confusion and slurred speech, skin redness and increased heart rate.

Heart Disease and regulation of body temperature

During hot weather, the heart can pump up to four times more than normal blood to the skin in order to activate the sweat glands. This is because sweat when evaporated helps to cool down the skin. Now imagine a person with a weakened heart as a result of a past heart attack or heart failure in this condition, such a person’s heart might be unable to carry out this function.

Another important reason is that during extreme heat, the body produces stress hormones such as cortisol for salt and water balance. Lots of minerals are lost and the heart rate also increases. This triad of stress hormone release, mineral depletion and elevated heart rate can sometimes be too difficult for a weakened heart to handle.

Also, people living with heart diseases take medications that can affect their body’s ability to regulate heat. For instance, diuretics which are the first line treatment in the management of hypertension can worsen dehydration while beta-blockers which are commonly used in heart failure can prevent the heart from beating fast enough to circulate blood to the skin to activate sweating.

“Even though extreme heat affects everyone, people with heart diseases are at greater risk of hospitalization or death”

Staying safe during extreme heat

Adapting these strategies during extreme heat can help you protect yourself and your heart:

Increase your water intake

According to the Centre for Disease control, you should drink up to 8-10 glasses of water on a hot day to stay healthy and hydrated. As explained above, people with heart diseases especially those placed on diuretics are at greater risk of dehydration. Increasing your water intake can help supplement the fluid loss and help your body stay cool in extreme heat.

Limit alcohol and soda intake

Alcohol increases fluid loss and this might result in dehydration on a hot day. Also, reaching for can after can of soda can be very tempting during hot weather. While experts may never agree on whether soda is dehydrating or not, taking it in moderation is very important especially on hot days. Water is always a safer option to rely on.

Avoid vigorous exercise

As much as exercise is good for protecting the heart, extremely strenuous exercise or activity that increases your body temperature or forces your body to sweat more should be limited during hot weather

Avoid direct exposure to peak sunlight

Staying home might not be an option on some very sunny days even though it is advisable to people with heart diseases (ensure also that home is not too hot to stay). When going out, morning and evening hours are more advisable, you should also take intermittent breaks under a shade when possible.

Dress appropriately

Wear loose clothing and footwears, sunglasses and hats when going out. Also, light colored clothes are more advisable to wear as they help reflect off heat

Use sunscreen

Sunscreen will protect you from sunburns that could affect your body’s ability to cool down.

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