COVID-19 and its continuing high transmission rate has made staying cool a challenge for many people. Infectious disease experts typically advise keeping social interactions and activities outdoors, where airflow helps disperse the coronavirus and lowers risks of transmission. Not, however, during extreme heat.
“Outdoors there is almost an infinite amount of air compared to indoors, but staying inside during times of high heat is advisable,” said Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “It’s just as important to avoid indoor gatherings and, when that is absolutely not possible, to be vigilant about safe distancing and wearing masks.”
Evolving research suggests that air conditioners create little risk, but COVID-19 is most often transmitted in the air, through droplets and possibly in lighter, floating aerosols. That is another reason to avoid indoor gatherings. Even if people keep a 6-foot-distance, airflow will be limited and windows will be closed.
General guidance for avoiding heat-related health issues
Drink before you’re thirsty. Thirst is often the first sign of dehydration. Belafsky recommends people who work outdoors drink one quart of water per hour. Indoor workers should consider setting a “water alarm” that will remind them to stay hydrated.
Acclimate yourself to the heat carefully. “It takes a few weeks to acclimate your body to the heat. Be mindful and recognize that your water requirements will increase,” Belafsky said.
Skip the caffeine. “It’s tempting to reach for a soda or iced tea on a warm day to quench your thirst,” Belafsky said. “But people aren’t aware that the caffeine they’re consuming is doing the exact opposite of what they need. It’s dehydrating.” Instead, she recommends opting for decaffeinated herbal iced tea, sparkling water or to create your own “spa water” that’s infused with fresh fruit.
Wear breathable fabrics. Try wearing lightweight cotton, linen or a fabric blend that feels cool to the touch and is breathable. Avoid synthetic fabrics like polyester that don’t allow the body’s natural cooling system to work. If you’ll be in and out of buildings with air conditioning, Belafsky suggests wearing light layers such as a summer cardigan or chambray shirt.
Know your personal risk. “Certain populations are more vulnerable to the heat,” said Belafsky. “People with chronic kidney disease or diabetes, for example. It’s important to understand how extreme temperatures affect your medical condition.” Belafsky also said common medications can impact a person’s ability to stay cool or hydrated. Thyroid medication and diuretics that treat blood pressure can cause excessive sweating and salt depletion that leads to dehydration. Beta blockers for heart conditions can impair sweating which makes it hard for the body to cool itself.
Use an easy “life hack.” Dip your feet into a cool bath for 15 minutes to relax and cool your body down after a long day. Before bedtime, pop a clean pillowcase into your freezer for 30 minutes to enjoy a cool night’s sleep. “Take a shower before bed,” Belafsky said. “This will take anything sticky off your skin and make it easier for your body to use its natural evaporative cooling mechanism, especially if you’re near a fan.”
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Warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illness from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention