Welcome to Lotus Land, where, alas, it’s been stinkin’ hot lately. This is tragically unfair, I think. I moved here to Canada’s beautiful West Coast decades ago in order to escape the kind of soul-sucking sauna that passes for summer back east.
And because uncomfortably hot weather is so deliciously rare here, few of us even have air conditioning, although I do have a little electric fan that I’ve started carrying around the apartment with me from room to room this past week.
Since surviving a heart attack, I’ve learned a whole new reason to hate the heat. I walk around feeling sick, clutching my little fan, a damp cloth pressed to the back of my neck, hot and cranky and looking like I’ve been hit by a very large bus. Here’s why heart patients can feel so much worse when those temperatures soar:
Your Heart in the Heat
The heart is a fist-sized muscle that pumps blood through your arteries to all organs and tissues throughout your body. When ambient temperatures rise, the heart has to beat faster and work harder to pump blood to the surface of your skin to assist with sweating to cool your body.
If your body cannot cool itself enough, strain is put on the heart, and organs can begin to suffer damage – a potentially fatal condition known as heat stroke.
If You Have Heart Disease
Anyone can get heat stroke, but people with heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases are at greater risk.
If you have heart disease, your heart may not be able to work harder in the heat to maintain cooler body temperatures. Additionally, diuretics to reduce water in the bloodstream are prescribed for many heart conditions, as are beta blockers. Each of these medications can reduce a person’s ability to cool off in the heat.
Help Prevent Heat Stroke
- Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing.
- Protect against sunburn.
- Drink plenty of fluids (if you’ve been diagnosed with heart failure, talk to your doctor about fluid intake).
- Take extra precautions with certain medications (e.g. diuretics or beta blockers as listed above). Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your meds affect your body’s ability to stay hydrated or dissipate heat).
- NEVER leave anyone in a parked car, even for a very short time.
- Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day by finding a cool place.
- Take the time to get used to extreme heat (it can take a week or two to get your body used to it).
Exercising in the Heat
Simple rule: when it’s dangerously hot outside, don’t do it, unless you’re exercising inside a comfortably air-conditioned building. If you’re used to exercising indoors or in cooler weather, take it easy at first when temperatures begin to climb. Don’t increase the length or intensity of your workouts if you experience any heat-related symptoms.
Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration is a key factor in heat illness.
If you’re unfit or new to exercise, be extra cautious when working out in the heat at all, especially if you have a heart condition in which your body may already have a lower tolerance to the heat. Reduce your exercise intensity and take frequent breaks in the shade to rest and drink water.
Both the exercise itself and the air temperature can increase your core body temperature. To help cool itself, your body sends more blood to circulate through your skin. This leaves less blood for your muscles, which in turn increases your heart rate. If the humidity is also high, your body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher.
If you plan to exercise outside during hot and humid weather, wear very light, comfortable clothing and work out only in the very early morning or late evening if possible.
Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke (below). If any of these symptoms appear, stop exercising and cool down immediately by dousing yourself with cold water. You may need to get medical attention. Heat exhaustion can progress quickly to heat stroke, which can kill you.
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is a medical emergency. If you experience the following symptoms, apply cool water to your skin immediately and seek medical help.
- High fever
- Hot, dry skin without sweating
- Pounding pulse
- Nausea and/or vomiting
If you experience heavy sweating with cool, clammy skin, along with symptoms such as fatigue, muscle cramps, headache, nausea, or fainting, you may have heat exhaustion – a form of heat sickness that can lead to heat stroke.
Get out of the heat immediately. Fan your body and apply cool water to your skin, remove extra clothing or any sports equipment, and drink cool (not cold) water or a sports drink; these steps can help you stop heat exhaustion before it worsens.
If these symptoms strike, have someone stay with you if possible who can help monitor your condition. If you don’t feel better within 30 minutes, contact your doctor.
Remember: if you have signs of heat stroke, seek immediate medical help.
Source: Mayo Clinic, The Heart and Stroke Foundtion, and The Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about external factors that can affect women heart patients’ day-to-day life in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
UPDATE: Thanks to Texas cardiologist Dr. John P. Erwin III for sharing with us this study on the effect of hot weather on the heart:
“Relation of Atmospheric Pressure Changes and the Occurrences of Acute Myocardial Infarction and Stroke”, Houck, Philip D. et al. American Journal of Cardiology , Volume 96 , Issue 1 , 45 – 51
Q: What’s your best tip to beat the heat?