AU professor offers advice for staying safe in the summer heat

AUBURN – Looking for ways to stay cool this summer? With temperatures rising, it is not only important to stay cool for comfort’s sake, but also for your safety.

Auburn University professor David Pascoe, who studies human thermoregulation as a distinguished professor of exercise physiology in the Department of Kinesiology, notes that human bodies are regulated to precisely maintain a core body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of inside or outside temperatures or conditions. A few degrees alteration in body temperature can greatly affect humans and place them at risk.

“Every day, we are faced with a variety of factors that have the potential to increase our body temperature,” he said. These factors include thermal stress from the environment, as well as heat production by exercise and other routine activities. To counter these heat gains, the body must rely on several methods of heat-loss such as surface contact (conduction), movement of air or water (convection), heat waves (radiation), or evaporation of sweat, the method by which we lose most of our heat.

So, what can we do to maintain a safe core body temperature? Pascoe recommends wearing breathable, light-weight, loose-fitting clothing that is conducive to the evaporative process by which moisture is removed from the skin. He also suggests avoiding the use of fabric softeners when caring for hot-climate clothing.

“Fabric softeners leave a residue on the fabric that reduces the ability to absorb and transport the moisture,” Pascoe said.

In addition, literature does not support the notion that wearing light colored clothing will keep you cooler than dark colored clothing. Although dark colors absorb more heat and result in a higher surface temperature, a warmer fabric surface can actually reduce the transfer of heat through clothing.

It is also important to stay hydrated during the extreme heat. “As little as 2-percent dehydration can influence motor skills and performance,” Pascoe said. “Individuals who are dehydrated are also more prone to temperature increases and heat-related problems.”

Humans, though, are very poorly designed to handle thirst.

“We have already become dehydrated once we feel thirsty,” Pascoe said. And although water is an excellent way to hydrate oneself, Pascoe does not discriminate among which fluid is most effective. “Water, sports drinks, and even caffeinated beverages are all effective ways to stay hydrated,” according to Pascoe. “The key is to make sure you are consuming fluids.”

One way to stay hydrated is by matching fluids lost through sweat to one’s fluid intake, according to Pascoe. “It is important to realize what kind of sweater you are,” he said. “Profuse sweaters should consume more fluids than those who sweat only minimally.”

Also, an obvious sign of dehydration is evident in one’s urine. “Dark yellow urine is an indication of dehydration and a signal to drink more fluids,” Pascoe said.

The seriousness of extreme heat cannot be underestimated, especially since we possess less heat adaptability than ever before, he said. Today, thanks to almost-constant air conditioning, we go from cool location to cool location. Because of this, our bodies are not accustomed to heavy heat loads.

Pascoe warns that the first three days of extreme heat exposure pose the most risk to the body. During this time, the body is adapting to the heat and is most vulnerable to injury. Heat illness is now considered as permanent damage to one’s body and can become a lifetime problem.

“Once you have had a heat incident, your body is less capable to handle heat in the future,” Pascoe said.

Several signs can indicate that heat has become a problem to one’s body. Symptoms include headache, nausea, a disoriented feeling, cessation of sweating (one should be sweating but is not), and skin that feels hot to the touch. Individuals with these symptoms should heed the warning and seek shelter and medical attention.

Contact: Michael Tullier, 844-1324, (tullimj@auburn.edu), or
Dave Pascoe, 844-1479, (pascodd@auburn.edu)