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Heat Folly: Mad Dogs and Englishmen

In the late 1800s Rudyard Kipling wrote: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”  “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” is also the title of a song written by Nol Coward in 1931.  Alas, today there seem to a lot of others who repeat that folly.

Summer is here along with its heat and humidity.  And with those conditions come problems with your body’s response to heat, the three most serious of which are heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.  The good news is that usually those problems can be headed off by using that rare commodity we call common sense.

In case you’re in a hurry, let me start with the bottom line meaning of common sense.  In hot weather and especially if it’s humid as well, avoid strenuous exercise or other forms of over-exertion, avoid over-dressing, minimize alcohol intake, and drink more water than you would think sensible. 

These cautions are even more important if you’re younger than 4 or older than 65, are taking certain drugs, obese, or likely to encounter sudden temperature changes such as entering or leaving an overly cooled supermarket.

Heat and Your Body.

Here is what’s going on in your body with regard to heat.

Your body needs heat to initiate and maintain the biochemical reactions that keep you alive and functioning.  Your body continuously produces its own heat from the food you eat.  Your body has complex control mechanisms to maintain a more or less constant body temperature around  98.6F in most people, but a bit higher or lower in others.

Different parts of the body need to be kept at a similar temperature, and this is accomplished mainly by the blood flowing around every part of you.  The heat carried by the blood is sensitively maintained by your body’s awareness and control of the temperature of tissues through which the blood flows, the thickness of the blood, how fast it’s flowing, and the diameter of the blood vessels.

If there is too much heat in your body it needs to be reduced.  To make this happen your body triggers sweat glands in your skin to bring more moisture to the outer layer of skin.  The difference in temperature between your body and the outside causes the moisture to evaporate, and because evaporation is a cooling process your excess body heat is reduced.

So here’s the problem with heat and humidity:  The greater the difference between your body temperature and the air temperature the greater will be the evaporative cooling effect.  If the air temperature is the same as your body temperature then no evaporation takes place and so there is no cooling.  This is made worse if the humidity is high because the air already has a lot of moisture and it’s more difficult for your body to add more moisture to the air.

This means that if the outside temperature is in the mid-90s, near your normal body temperature, then you really need to find a way artificially to cool your body: air conditioning, immersing yourself in cool water, or something else.

How to Know When You're in Trouble.

Here are some ways to tell if you’re getting in trouble because of the heat.

If you experience heavy sweating, fatigue, and muscle cramps then it’s likely that the cramps are heat cramps.  These are the mildest form of heat illness, and are most easily controlled by increasing water intake, even sports drinks like Gatorade, by getting into the shade or other cooler location, and resting.

Failure to act on these symptoms may lead to heat exhaustion.  With this condition you may still have heavy sweating, fatigue, and muscle cramps, but you may also have cool, wet, goose-bumpy skin, dizziness, and a weak rapid pulse as well as nausea and headache.  The same prescription as for heat cramps may help with heat exhaustion, but if the symptoms continue for close to an  hour or if your temperature closes in on 104F then please get to your doctor or an emergency room immediately.

Heat stroke is the worst, and requires immediate treatment.  It happens as your temperature rises above 104F.  The effects may be permanent damage to your brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles, with consequences worsening the longer treatment is delayed.  It can lead to death.  The symptoms are generally exacerbations of those of heat exhaustion, but include as well altered states of consciousness such as slurred speech, delirium, seizures, and coma.

Call 911…this is a serious condition.  While waiting for help do what you can to cool the victim:  get into the shade, remove excess clothing, get the person into cool water, spray with a garden hose, fan the person while spraying with a mist, use icepacks or cool wet towels on the head, neck, armpits, and groin.  These efforts could save the person’s life.

What Drugs Are Risky?

Drugs that you need for one condition or another may increase your risk of illness due to heat.  These are medications like the beta blockers and diuretics you may need for your heart, antihistamines for allergies, tranquilizers, and antipsychotics.  In addition controlled substances such as cocaine and amphetamines work to increase your temperature.  In short, be concerned about any medications or other substances that may tend to dehydrate you or impair your body’s ability to control its temperature.


These days there is generally little reason for anyone to suffer heat induced illnesses.  We know what circumstances cause them, and we know what first aid to use should they occur.  It’s simply a matter of being aware of your body’s condition, and avoiding the factors that contribute to illness caused by heat.

Be neither Mad Dog nor Englishman in the sense that Kipling and Coward used those terms.


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