By Glenn Ellis
There’s a lot to do when the weather is right in the summertime. Unfortunately, too much fun in the sun can be dangerous. Excessive heat exposure can cause dehydration, which in turn can cause dangerous conditions like heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
A lot of people don’t realize that when you’re well-hydrated, your urine should be close to running water.
As hot temperatures continue to soar throughout much of the country, the nation’s emergency rooms are treating more people with heat-related illnesses with a focus on staying cool and keeping hydrated.
Untreated severe dehydration can cause seizures, brain damage or even be fatal. Most mild dehydration issues can simply be treated by drinking more water or fluids. Moderate cases may result in a visit to the emergency department where a patient may need to be given fluids intravenously.
Unknowingly, you constantly engage your body in the life-and-death struggle to disperse the heat it produces. If allowed to accumulate, this heat would quickly increase your body temperature.
The human body consists of nearly 60 percent water; brain tissue is said to consist of about 85 percent water.
Although fluid loss occurs during hard physical work, even simple tasks like gardening, walking or riding a bike can result in a significant loss of fluid within a very short period. We can also lose a lot of fluid in hot or humid conditions.
Urine is typically the same as a person’s body temperature. On average, this is 98.6˚F (37˚C). Some people have normal temperature variations that may be slightly hotter or slightly cooler than this. Urine will usually maintain its temperature outside the body for about four minutes.
If you’ve ever had a urinalysis, you may have noticed that your urine feels hot in the sample cup. This is because your urine is the same temperature as your internal body. It’ll feel hot since your external body temperature is often cooler, due to the outside air.
The human body contains a high proportion of water, so when the temperature rises and the body tries to cool itself by sweating, dehydration can occur, particularly in children.
Babies and small children feel the effects of heat sooner and more seriously than adults. Children in cars need special protection from heat as cars can heat up very quickly. A parked, locked car can reach dangerously high temperatures very quickly, even if the windows are open slightly. You should never leave a child in a parked car – your child can quickly become overheated and dehydrated, with potentially fatal consequences.
People who are obese, chronically ill or alcoholics have an increased risk. The elderly are at higher risk because of impaired cardiac output and decreased ability to sweat.
The heat makes you sweat, which cools you down, but that also means you’re constantly losing fluid. You should drink water to counteract dehydration in hot or humid weather, regardless of your activity level. Drinking water helps lower your body temperature and replace the fluid you lose through sweating. It should be drunk before you get to the stage of feeling thirsty.
It’s best to remember that other drinks, such as soft drinks, coffee, or alcohol-containing beverages, are no substitute for water. Although they contain water, they also contain ingredients which are dehydrating.
When you spend time outside in hot weather you probably start to feel thirsty in a fairly short time. That’s a normal response and one you should pay close attention to: it means your body needs more water to deal with the heat.
It is recommended that during hot weather we should be drinking water even when not thirsty. You can tell if you are well hydrated if you do not feel thirsty and your urine is a clear color.
If you drink only when you are thirsty, you are dehydrated already. Thirst is not a good guide for when to drink water. In fact, in hot and humid conditions, you may be so dehydrated by the time you become thirsty that you will have trouble catching up with your fluid losses. One guideline regarding your water intake is to monitor your urine. You are getting enough water if you produce clear urine at least five times a day. Cloudy or dark urine, or urinating less than five times a day, means you should drink more.
No matter what your plans are this summer, you won’t want to miss any of them. Normal urine should not smell unpleasant. Dehydration can cast a distinct aroma if your urine isn’t as diluted as usual, signaling that you need to drink up.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.