Keep Your Cool: Avoid Heat Stress

Learn to recognize the symptoms of heat stress, plus ways to stay cool as a cucumber while tackling garden tasks.

| Fall 2016

For gardeners, the dog days of summer mean lots of garden work needs to be done. The label “lazy days of summer” doesn’t apply to us. We know that the last of the soup peas need to be picked, the string beans are coming in, and tomatoes and freezer corn are demanding all of our attention. Everything seems to be begging for water. And weeds never take a vacation. While a garden can quickly generate hours of work that needs to be done immediately, gardeners need to remember that this is also the hottest time of the season, and we must work smart to avoid heat stress.

Heat stress is a real concern for anyone working outside in the height of summer. If left untreated, heat stress can rapidly lead to heatstroke, which can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, severe heat killed more people in the United States between 1979 and 2003 than earthquakes, blizzards, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or lightning. Heat stress can do more than just ruin your time in the garden — it can ruin your whole day, or make it your last.

Symptoms of Heat Stress

The symptoms of heat stress include excessive sweating or not sweating at all; hot, dry skin; chills; throbbing headaches; confusion or dizziness; nausea; slurred speech; and, in extreme cases, hallucinations. Avoid a world of trouble: Catch the warning signs early and take action.

Pay attention to your state of mind. Are you feeling dizzy or confused? Are simple tasks frustrating you? Do you suddenly feel exhausted or weak? Have a headache? Do you feel like you just can’t take a decent breath? Is your heart racing? Do you feel nauseous or, worse, are you already throwing up? If you have any of these symptoms of heat stress, your body is telling you it’s time to quit. It doesn’t matter if you “just have a few more weeds to pull.” You need to quit working outside for the day.

Monitoring your own mental condition can be difficult, so enlist help from family members or neighbors. I don’t mean asking them to help pick beans (but if they’re willing to help, you should take advantage of the offer!) — I mean asking someone to check in on you every now and then.

Perspiration is your body’s most effective cooling system. While sweat may not be fit for polite conversation, it can be your best friend in the garden. Pay attention to how much you’re sweating as you work. Working up a sweat is OK, but if the sweat is pouring out like rain, you’re too hot already. Take a water break. If you stop sweating and feel hot and flushed, your body needs more than just a drink — it needs you to stop and cool down, now. Grab that drink and get in the shade, the air conditioning, or even the pool. At the very least, take a shower with the garden hose to bring your core body temperature down fast. Regardless, your gardening work is done for the day. Period. No bowl of peas or bag of beans is worth risking a case of heatstroke.

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