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Keeping Cool in Extreme Heat Indexes
High humidity is what can kill you - thanks, Tonga volcano!
I used to love summer. But not this year.
A dangerous “heat dome” is engulfing the Midwest-Central part of the United States, with heat indexes reaching 120+ Fahrenheit.
I realize that quite a few people scoff at “heat indexes” as being some sort of scam to push climate change,1 but they are no joke. The term heat index has been used as long as I can remember (and I’m 53 now). While I do agree that weather reporters are being a bit lax in distinguishing between actual temperature vs. heat index, perhaps intentionally confusing the two, heat index is actually the more important number.
Think of heat index as the “Danger, Will Robinson, this heat can kill you” number.
Last week I took a rare trip with my dad to visit with my step-sister and her family on the Jersey Shore. My dad used to take me to the Jersey Shore, specifically Cape May, every summer as a kid for a week.
This year, we were staying in Wildwood, right next door to Cape May. It was actually cool-ish in Wildwood on Tuesday, and the plan was to drive to Cape May to look at the historic areas, get some lunch, and maybe play some skee-ball with the teenage kids.
We could not find parking, and ended up at the Cape May lighthouse, which includes a bit of a nature preserve with birds and some things to see such as a WWII bunker. The kids wanted to see the bunker, and this involved a walk down a sandy path in bright sunlight. It wasn’t super far, but halfway there I started to feel sick and realized I was overheating. I turned back and had to splash myself down at a water fountain (that was thankfully right by the path entrance) to stop the overheating.
This was a close call.
I have to be careful. With my small fiber neuropathy, I do not sweat properly - I do sweat but far less than the typical person.2 Sweat is what keeps you cool in the heat. It’s the way your body cools down. No sweat, and you overheat.
That day, it was exceedingly hot in Cape May, but I wasn’t sweating at all. My armpits weren’t even moist.
I was getting heat exhaustion and thankfully had enough sense to catch it before it got bad. The thing is, I hadn’t been prepared. I only had a small mini-bottle of water with me, and no electrolytes, so I could have been in for a world of hurt. Cape May never used to be this hot when I was a kid, and the ocean usually has a nice breeze, so I was completely unprepared for the brutal, suffocating heat.
What shocked me was how different the temperature was in Wildwood vs. Cape May. Wildwood was breezy and relatively cool. I don’t know what the actual temperature was in Wildwood, but it was balmy. But Cape May? Downright dangerous. After my brush with sun stroke I looked it up and at the time, here was bad news in Cape May:
Temperature: 90 degrees
Heat index: 110 degrees
Humidity: 80 percent
Dew Point: 76 percent
WTF. No wonder I felt like I was boiling up.
Once I realized the danger I was in, I filled some empty Snapple bottles (that the kids had drank from) with water from the drinking fountain and made sure I kept applying the water to my skin to make up for my lack of sweat. I also got in the shade and stayed there until everyone returned and we went back to the air conditioned car. I felt like crap the rest of the day but some Italian water ice helped a bit later.
Why have things been so humid this year in many parts of the world? You can thank the volcano that erupted in Tonga last year:
In the new study, researchers used data collected by NASA's Aura satellite to assess the amount of water that was thrust into the stratosphere, the second layer in Earth's atmosphere, which extends from 4 to 12 miles (6 to 20 kilometers) up to 31 miles (50 km) above the planet's surface. The results revealed that 160,900 tons (146,000 metric tons) of additional water vapor had entered the stratosphere since the volcano erupted, reaching a maximum altitude of 33 miles (53 km), which is in the mesosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that extends from the top of the stratosphere to an altitude of 53 miles (85 km).
This makes it the largest and highest injection of water into the stratosphere since satellites began taking measurements.
“The largest and highest injection of water into the stratosphere since satellites began taking measurements”? No wonder the heat indexes are so bad this year!
Why does humidity make heat more dangerous?
High humidity makes heat more dangerous because it affects the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating. When the air is humid, it becomes saturated with moisture, making it difficult for sweat to evaporate from the skin. Evaporation is a cooling process that helps regulate body temperature. When sweat doesn’t evaporate efficiently, it reduces the body’s ability to cool down, leading to an increased risk of heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Additionally, high humidity can make it harder to breathe, as the moist air can make it feel heavier and more difficult to take in oxygen. This combination of high heat and humidity puts extra strain on the body and increases the risk of heat-related dangers. Here are some the possible consequences of too much humidity in the air on a hot summer day:
Discomfort and fatigue
Difficulty in breathing
Increased risk of dehydration
Heat exhaustion or heatstroke
Aggravation of respiratory conditions
Worsening of allergies or asthma symptoms
Higher susceptibility to heat-related illnesses
How to keep yourself cool in high heat indexes:
The heat index becomes dangerous when it reaches or exceeds 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 degrees Celsius). At this temperature, the risk of heat-related illnesses increases significantly. It is important to take precautions and stay hydrated in hot and humid conditions. Here are some ways to keep yourself cool in high humidity:
Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Use a fan or air conditioner to circulate cool air.3
Take cool showers or baths.
Wear loose, lightweight, and breathable clothing.
Avoid strenuous activities during the hottest parts of the day.
Stay in shaded areas or use an umbrella to block direct sunlight.
Use a dehumidifier to reduce humidity indoors.
Apply cold compresses to your neck, wrists, and forehead.
Avoid consuming alcohol and caffeine, as they can dehydrate you.
Remember to listen to your body and take breaks when needed.
Excessive heat combined with high humidity can be especially challenging for individuals with conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) due to the potential impact on the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
You can purchase special cooling aids, such as cooling vests or towels designed specifically for MS patients. (Everybody can buy these items, as they are readily available online). For example, when I lived in Austin, Texas, I had a cooling bandana/headband, which contains beads in it that can stay cold. Soak the headband in water and optionally put it in the freezer before use. You can place it on your head or around your neck.
The poor man’s version of this is take any washcloth or rag, soak it in water, and freeze it. I used to bring a frozen washcloth with me when I did Bikram (hot) yoga, and it made all the difference.
You can also get a little battery powered fan that will mist water at you with an attached spray bottle. We have one of these that my dad will sometimes use when playing golf (unfortunately, I didn’t have it with me in Cape May).
You should also have water as well as electrolytes on hand when in high heat. SaltStick is an electrolyte tablet available as a fast chew that you can easily store in a pocket or pocketbook. (I usually have some of these in my bag but had changed bags on that trip! So remember to pack them!)
Don’t underestimate the power of heat and humidity to hurt you. Roll your eyes all you want at the weather forecasts of high “heat indexes,” but also be smart and prepared.
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I’m not here to argue the politics of climate change. I think the climate is effed up for a variety of reasons, including factors such as sun gamma radiation, natural disasters like the Tonga volcano, but yes, also human pollution and possibly weather warfare, which could also be originating from countries like China. That politicians in power appear to be abusing this crisis to solidify power is more the issue, and we shouldn’t be arguing over whether “climate change” is real or not. That’s not productive. We are going to need to protect ourselves.
Specifically, the test that showed I don’t sweat properly was a QSART test, which measures the health of the nerves that control sweating.