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Heat Wave in 20 States: 3 Ways Hot Weather Messes with Your Health (Plus How to Stay Safe)

Conde Nast Digital Studio

Conde Nast Digital Studio

Amy Paturel, SELF magazine

Americans are hot, sweaty and cranky this week as a heat wave sweeps through at least 20 states. But do you really know how the extreme weather affects your health?

Here's the thing: While kids, the elderly and pregnant women (in the third trimester) are often at the highest risk, according to physician assistant Amy Hendel, anyone is susceptible if they ignore the following warning signs.

1. Excessive sweating: When your body is exposed to heat, its natural response is to sweat to help you cool down. Gross, we know, but it's necessary! Want to avoid heat-related complications? Replace that "lost water" by rehydrating with water and, depending on how much you're sweating, a beverage with electrolytes. (You know that salty taste on your skin when you sweat? It's because your body is losing sodium and other electrolytes.)

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2. Heat cramps: If you stop sweating because of prolonged heat combined with dehydration, that's when the risk for complications begins. You'll begin to experience sweating, fatigue, thirst and muscle cramps, says Hendel, author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families. Left untreated, these cramps will evolve into headaches, dizziness, additional weakness, nausea and vomiting, and the skin may begin to feel cool and moist.

3. Heat stroke: If you've passed through the above stages and still haven't rehydrated or cooled down, then you're likely to develop heat stroke. Yikes! You may experience a fever (which can go above 104 degrees), irrational behavior, confusion, rapid breathing, seizures, hot/red skin, a weak pulse and finally unconsciousness. It's not pretty!

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So how do you protect yourself? Here's Hendel's list of Do's and Don'ts:

DO
-    Get into the shade or a cool, darker place.
-    If you're in an early stage, sip on a sports drink or electrolyte-based water or juice.
-    Lie down and raise your feet, so more blood is reaching the heart and brain.
-    Apply cool compresses to your forehead, back of the neck, armpits and groin area.
-    If you're suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke, call 911.

DON'T

-    Do not treat the fever like a traditional fever with aspirin or acetaminophen.
-    Never use caffeinated or alcoholic drinks as hydration.
-    Never administer salt tablets -- the salt or electrolytes should be in water.
-    Never underestimate how quickly cramps can turn into heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

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