Heat Safety: Keeping Summer Activities Safe

While enduring an excessive heat warning in my area, it seems like a great time to talk about heat safety. Many summer activities are meant to be outdoors–cookouts, sports, water balloon fights, and horticulture to name a few. Of course, you want to make sure your participants are safe while engaging in these activities. The heat and sunlight can be especially hard on those with certain illnesses and disabilities.

Let’s take a closer look at heat safety, how to help a person having a heat emergency, and some tips to make your summer activities safer for those sensitive to heat and sunlight.

Understanding Heat-Related Illnesses

If you recently completed a first aid class, some of these terms may be fresh in your mind. It never hurts, however, to review the most common heat-related illnesses and some of their symptoms. 

Prolonged exposure to the heat can cause a variety of illnesses ranging from mild to severe. 

Common Heat-Related Illnesses

  • Heat cramps: Sweating is the body’s main way of cooling off. Excessive sweating, however, can deplete the body of fluids and minerals. In some cases, it may cause muscle cramping and/or spasms. This can include cramping in the arms, calves, and abdomen. 
  • Heat exhaustion: Is another heat-related illness caused by losing fluids and salt by excessive sweating. The loss of these fluids can cause cold, clammy skin, nausea, dizziness, weakness, and fainting. 
  • Heat stroke: The most serious of these illnesses–the body’s mechanism to cool itself essentially shuts down and can no longer regulate body temperature. This is a medical emergency. Signs of heat stroke include: high body temperature (over 103 degrees F), fast, strong pulse, dizziness, confusion, passing out, rapid breathing, flushed skin, and slurred speech.

image of person cooling off with water

Treating heat exhaustion and heat cramps involves getting the participant to a cooler place and allowing them to slowly re-hydrate. Loosening any tight clothes and using cool, wet cloths may also be helpful. If a person’s symptoms get worse or last longer than an hour, it’s advisable to get medical attention. Also, if you have a nurse on duty, alert them as soon as you suspect heat cramps or exhaustion.

Heat stroke, needs immediate medical attention. If you don’t have a nurse or doctor nearby, call 911 or your local emergency number right away. As help arrives, try to get the person to a cooler area. Use cool cloths or cool misted water to help with the high body temperature. Generally, IV fluids given by a medical professional is necessary for the participant to re-hydrate after heat stroke.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great infographic describing these conditions and what to do. 


When skin is exposed for prolonged periods to extreme ultraviolet (UV) rays without protection, sunburn occurs. Sometimes sunburn can develop very quickly. This often depends on a person’s complexion, what the UV index is for the day, and if they have any medical conditions or medications that make them more sensitive to the sun. In some cases, when the UV index is very high, it may only take minutes for sunburn to occur. 

Symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Redness or pinkness of the skin
  • Skin feeling warm to the touch
  • Itchy skin
  • Pain and tenderness of the burned area
  • Blisters developing after being exposed to the sun
  • Peeling skin

In more severe cases symptoms of sunburn may include:

  • Burns over large areas of the body
  • Extensive blistering and pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Altered states of consciousness

Presence of the more severe symptoms may indicate sun poisoning–a type of allergic reaction to the sun’s UV rays. 

It usually takes several days for sunburn to go away. There is no effective treatment for sunburn–just symptom management. Taking cool baths or putting cold, damp towels on the skin may help with pain. In addition, lotions or moisturizers with aloe vera can help soothe the skin. If your participant develops blisters, you may want to cover them with loose dressing to prevent him or her from breaking them. 

Severe cases of sunburn man need to be checked out by a doctor or dermatologist. 

Are Your Participants More Vulnerable to Heat Related-Illness?

Heat safety involves knowing your participants medical conditions and if that puts them at a higher risk for heat-related illnesses. 

Health Conditions Contributing to a Higher Risk of Heat Illness

  • Overweight/obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney problems
  • Poor physical fitness
  • Pregnancy
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Alcoholism/Illegal drug use
  • Medical conditions involving poor blood circulation
  • Participants that are very old or young
  • History of heat-related illnesses
  • Participant with a current or recent fever

Certain medications for physical or mental health issues can also put a participant at risk including:

  • Antidepressants and antipsychotic medications may decrease the body’s ability to sweat and cool off. 
  • Antihistamines may also affect one’s ability to sweat.
  • Blood pressure medications and beta blockers can affect the skin’s ability to cool down.
  • Stimulant medications like Ritalin and Adderall can increase body temperature.
  • Diuretics (drugs ridding the body of extra water) may increase the risk of dehydration
  • Illegal drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, and ecstasy raise a person’s core temperature making it easy to overheat.
  • Being dehydrated may also raise the level of certain drugs in a person’s body. This can contribute to negative side effects related to the drug.

Some drugs also make a person more sensitive to sunlight. They include:

  • Antibiotics and Antifungals
  • Antihistamines
  • Cholesterol lowering drugs
  • NSAIDs
  • Tranquilizers
  • Retinoids
  • Psoralens
  • Acne medications
  • Sulfonamides
  • Oral contraceptives and estrogens
  • Diuretics

Before starting an outdoor activity on a hot day, review your participant’s medical records and current medications. This will help you know who may need extra monitoring or an alternate activity. 

Heat Safety Tips for Recreation Therapists/Activity Professionals

image of summer activitiesAs Recreation Therapists, we want to ensure a safe, therapeutic experience for each of our participants. Given the nature of outdoor activities, there are always some risks. Weather conditions, of course, are usually somewhere near the top of the list. In the heat of the summer months, it is imperative we address our participants’ unique needs and use heat safety practices. 

Here are some tips to help your activities, sports, and outdoor events safer for populations sensitive to the heat and sunlight. 

Know the Weather in Advance

Thanks to technology, it is easier than ever to monitor the weather. Smartphone apps can give you hourly forecasts, predicted UV indexes, and even a current look at the radar. This invaluable information can help you plan accordingly for heat safety during summer activities. 

Be aware of your organization’s cancellation policy regarding hot and humid weather. This can vary based on your population and their specific health needs. 

Make Sure Your Participants Dress Appropriately

Depending on your setting, participants may be dropped off by family or come to an outdoor activity directly from a facility. If possible, maintain an open line of communication with family members or staff about dressing properly for the occasion. 

Loose fitting clothes with light colors can help a participant stay cool. Also, “breathable” fabrics like cotton, linen, or rayon help let air in and absorb the moisture of sweat. Shorts, T-shirts, and tank tops can be great for the hot weather, but make sure your participants have sunscreen to protect any exposed skin. 

If the budget allows, always have some extra hats and sunglasses available for participants that forget to bring them. 

Provide Shade

If you aren’t familiar with the area of your summer activity, try to check it out prior to the event. If possible, do it roughly the same time of day of your scheduled activity. Notice if there are structures or trees that provide a shady area. After all, a nice patch of shade can protect participants from some of the harmful UV rays and give a slightly cooler place to relax. 

If limited shade is available, consider investing in an instant shelter. Set-up for these canopy tents may only take a minute or two with a couple extra set of hands. 

Schedule for the Heat

In many cases, the hottest part of the day is the early to mid-afternoon. If you know a heat wave is coming, try to plan your activities earlier in the morning or late in the day. Adopting a “show must go on” attitude does no favors for participants vulnerable to the heat and sunlight. 

If possible, always plan a make-up date or indoor alternative to summer activities or sporting events. This may make it much easier for you to shift schedules or venues if an unexpected heat wave comes through.  

Have Hydration and Cooling Readily Available

An important part of heat safety is keeping participants hydrated. Don’t expect every participant to come to a summer activity with a big bottle of cold water or sports drink. Make sure you have plenty of water the participants can easily access. Sports drinks may also be good to replenish electrolytes and lost minerals, but some can be very high in calories or sugars. 

During an activity, take frequent water breaks–preferably away from direct sunlight. Encourage everyone involved in the activity–staff, participants, and family members–to stay hydrated.

Consider setting up a sprinkler or have mist fans available to help a participant cool down. In addition, bring an extra cooler and fill it with cold, damp cloths. The combination of hydration and cooling resources will make a hot day more comfortable.  

Modify Activities

If the weather is too hot to safely enjoy the activities you planned, consider alternatives. For example, if a late summer heat wave threatens your soccer game, consider playing kickball or doing drills and fun activities that don’t require as much running. 

Having a picnic with a softball game? How about a batting contest with water balloons?

A little creativity can transform activities that wouldn’t be safe in hot, humid weather to a memorable experience. 

Act Quickly if you Expect a Heat-Related Illness

Heat safety involves closely monitoring your participants. If someone starts looking sluggish, disoriented, or just not themselves, get them to a cooler area immediately. Don’t wait until symptoms become obvious. 

Remember: You are responsible for the safety of your participants. Many heat-related illnesses are preventable by knowing your participants limits and adapting activities to conform with the weather.

Enjoy the rest of your summer–just remember to always be mindful of heat safety.

Share with the Real Recreation Therapist Community

Your comments either on this site or on social media can be a valuable resource for other Recreation Therapist and Activity Professionals. Consider taking a minute or two to share your wisdom and experiences.

How do you prepare your participants for the heat?

What are your best cooling strategies?

Do you have a summer heat story you would like to share?

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