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What Happens To Our Bodies When It's Hot Out?

The Pacific Northwest is experiencing a major heatwave. When it's this hot out, while hiking in the gorge or just to your car, your body will inevitably goes through a similar song and dance: some sweat, maybe some lethargy, perhaps a bit of dizziness.

The reason why this happens is pretty much thanks to our body's (for lack of a better metaphor) internal air-conditioning unit.

As the temperature rises on a hot summer day or a good workout, that AC unit kicks in and keeps us cool.

“We notice sweating happening as our body is trying to get rid of that excess heat,” said Rebecca Tuttle. She's an emergency physician at the Portland VA and adjunct assistant professor at OHSU.

The human body is around 60 percent water and it’s spread out in different areas. When it's hot, the body begins tapping different water reserves from places like the blood stream, fat, muscles and kidneys to maintain our normal bodily functions.

As the body continues to get warmer, the heart pumps faster, bringing blood closer to the surface of the skin. The capillaries dilate, your skin turns pinker, and the beloved sweating process begins.

Sweat seeps through our pores and evaporates, taking heat away from our body. This is when you might notice your mouth getting dry.

That’s actually your body telling you all that sweating is making your blood pressure drop and you need more water.

“Recently, I was at a wedding that was outside and everyone was sweating. As soon as the wedding ended, we all went to stand up and everybody got a little lightheaded. That's exactly the body adjusting to that pressure change," Tuttle said.

But for children under 4, that internal AC unit isn’t fully developed, and for people older than 65 things like medications or illness could make it work worse than it should.

Symptoms like muscle cramps and nausea signal you’re getting into dangerous territory. These are early warning signs of heat exhaustion or heat stress.

And for about 50 percent of those cases, if a person stops sweating that's a sign they're entering heatstroke.

That’s when your body gets hotter than 104 degrees. It starts shutting down and sees damage to vital organs like the kidneys and brain.

The way to stay cool in hot weather is a bit intuitive. Give that AC unit a bit of coolant with some water or a sports drink with electrolytes. If you’re hot, help your body save some of those reserves by relaxing in shade or, if you can, go to a cool place like a movie theater.

Your body is already trying to beat the heat. If you want to stay comfortable, you just need to help it out.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting

John Rosman