Tips to stay cool in the summer heat

I just have to hear the song Hot Fun in the Summertime to know summer is here. If you don’t know the tune, Sly and the Family Stone recorded it in 1969. Summer is fun, but it can induce problems for pilots beyond the usual challenge of dealing with afternoon thunderstorms. Not only can summer heat have serious, or even fatal, health consequences, the aeromedical sequelae will be enough to raise your body temperature to boiling! 

When you sweat, that means water and salt are being lost and if you are not sufficiently hydrated, your body’s ability to cool diminishes, which can lead to heat exhaustion—feeling unwell, tired, weak, dizzy, or nauseated, or having muscle cramps; you could even pass out. If those are not big enough warning signs, these should get your attention: intense thirst, darker urine that is of smaller volume, and a racing pulse. Left untreated, heat stroke can ensue. When the body loses the ability to cool itself, internal temperature soars and seizures can follow with dire consequences.

If you suspect heat exhaustion, get into a cool environment promptly, remove clothing, lie down, drink fluids, and fan the moist skin to help promote heat loss. If heat stroke is suspected, immediately seek medical attention. 

Keep out of direct sunlight, be cognizant of rising temperatures, and drink plenty of fluids—beer does not constitute fluid, sorry! Alcohol actually dehydrates the body, interferes with temperature regulation, and leads to daft behaviors such as falling asleep in direct sunlight. 

Women are more prone to these issues due to differing body water distribution and a lower propensity to sweat. 

Diminished circulating blood volume, a direct consequence of dehydration, allows dissolved substances in urine to come out of solution and form kidney stones or, for little pieces of kidney to flake off. If nothing else garners your attention, this should as kidney stones can cause some of the most severe pain. Kidney stones also induce a lengthy and costly dialogue with FAA to monitor your condition.

For people with any cardiac disease or family history, be alert that hot temperatures place an extra demand on your heart and circulation. Just as shoveling snow is a risky activity in January, so is cleaning out your hangar on a steamy August day.

Sheryl Crow sang about wanting to soak up the sun, but every day in America over 14,000 skin cancers are diagnosed and every 50 minutes someone dies from melanoma alone. And pilots are a lot more likely to get these lesions either because we spend time in rarified air, which is more easily penetrated by ultraviolet light, or because we tend to be the kind of people who enjoy the great outdoors. So, for those summer days (in fact all days), do as our Australian cousins recommend, which led them to drastically reduce skin cancer rates: Slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, slop on sunscreen (the higher sun protection factor the better), and while you are at it, slide on sunglasses to protect your eyes from increased risk of cataracts. 

Summer heat also tends to impair air quality, so be considerate when fueling your airplane—better to do so in the morning or evening when the mercury is lower. If you have a propensity to lung problems such as asthma, take this into account during summer months.

Recent news about the Zika virus has many people in a lather, but bear in mind insects can carry other illness such as Lyme Disease. Airports often have inviting grassy areas, and if there is any standing water, be careful. Wear long socks, apply insect repellent spray, and do a tick check after an airport pancake breakfast.

All of these issues are also relevant to passengers you take flying—if it is someone’s first flight in a general aviation airplane, aim for early morning to increase the likelihood they have a good experience. A hot, stuffy airplane increases the chance of a nervous passenger becoming nauseated. And that is something we all want to avoid. 

Keep your cool, and have hot fun in the summertime—safely. 

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Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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