It’s July and once again the start of the hot weather season. Over the weekend temperatures soared, especially on Saturday, to a level where most of us felt the humidity and many took to open spaces to enjoy the extra sun and heat. But while the UK was faced with temperatures of a little over 30C, Europe baked in the heat of the saharan weather which caused some areas to reach well over 40C! Such hot weather usually brings out many sun-worshippers who enjoy the bright sun and long nights as a chance to get out, sunbathe and just generally relax in the glow of the heat. But there are dangers to being in the heat, and for some people, especially those with chronic health conditions, the heat can be extremely dangerous.
A very different experience
There are many chronic illnesses that people suffer from, and I won’t post the list here as I simply don’t know all of them, but many people with such conditions struggle in times of extreme heat. My own experiences of heat in the past have been less than pleasant and having had diabetes from a young age, I don’t remember a time during my teen years or later where I wasn’t suffering the effects of the hot weather.
Diabetes can wreak havoc on your body on a normal day, but when temperatures soar, the effects are far more complicated. A general lack of feeling well is something I experience almost every time there is a heat wave and my own body just never feels good in the heat, instead I always feel like I’m cooking in an oven, or about to spontaneously combust – I’m that hot! Added to that the pressures in the past of hayfever during the high heat, and even breathing problems due to childhood asthma, and you have the making of someone who feels like they are dying in a heat wave rather than enjoying it. 😦
What goes wrong with diabetes in the heat?
Diabetes, whether type 1 or 2 causes the body to have an imbalance of the hormone insulin. In type 1 diabetics insulin is not produced at all, whereas in type 2 diabetics insulin is produced but the body cannot properly use it. In both cases the body can’t regulate blood sugar levels properly because insulin is needed to keep the blood sugars at the right level. Unfortunately extreme heat can lead to lots of problems for the diabetic body:
Low blood sugars
For years I’ve had doctors tell me that blood sugar levels can fall during the heat and this is very possible. Heat has often been mentioned as a way of getting the blood sugars down, with hot baths even being advised to me in the past, something about the blood pumping faster or something causes your blood sugars to fall. The heat also makes it harder for diabetics to spot low blood sugar levels too because some of the symptoms of a hypo (extremely low blood sugar), sweating, shaking, headaches, mimic the way plenty of us feel in extreme heat. So it’s important for diabetics to keep checking their blood sugars often in the heat to spot potential hypos.
High bloog sugars
Despite what doctors have always said, I always suffered from high blood sugar levels rather than low. When telling my diabetes specialist at hospital, he didn’t believe me and used to always go on about how to avoid low blood sugars in the heat, however if you’ve suffered the same as me then you are not alone. Only recently I’ve found helpful information which has backed up what has always happened to me, that blood sugar levels in some diabetics can increase during a heatwave and that’s because of dehydration and possible problems with medication.
Injectable insulin has a temperature limit it can work at before things can go wrong. Despite this many diabetics may not be aware of this issue and will inject insulin that’s been left out in the heat. This insulin may start to degrade, somehow the molecules inside no longer function properly so when you inject it, it just doesn’t work as well as it should. This leads to high blood sugars. The other reason may also be dehydration. It sounds weird but I’ve personally found that the less I drink, the higher the chance of having high blook sugars and that’s to do with the body not flushing out the excess sugar as efficiently due to less water to do it.
Everybody is prone to dehydrating in the heat but diabetics can suffer from this more because of problems with high blood sugars. Anyone whose body suffers from high blood sugar levels will begin to feel dehydrated after a few hours. The body is a clever thing and tries to excrete as much of this excess sugar as possible in the urine (that’s why you often feel the need to go – urinate – when blood sugars are high). The body will use as much of it’s own water resources as possible, drawing water out of the body’s cells that aren’t immediately needed making you get more and more dehydrated. The body continues to do this but it’s only after a while that most diabetics will feel dehydrated, long after their blood sugars have ben high.
When blood sugars are high diabetics automatically feel thirsty but no matter how much you drink, if the blood sugars don’t get fixed, you’ll continue to be thirsty as the body continues to try to expell the excess sugar. A diabetic can feel naturally thirsty at any time of year, but in the excessive heat this can get worse. People in the heat are advised to keep hydrated and to drink when they are not thirsty, but if you are diabetic this need is even greater. It’s easy for the body to get easily dehydrated and if you don’t keep an eye on high blood sugars then a diabetic can pass out from the heat.
A consequence of the (described above) dehydration is that diabetics feeling dehydrated will often feel very hot, almost ovwhelmed by heat. Dehydration leads me to feel hotter than I should and in extreme heat, that overheated feeling become unbearable. I feel like I’m being cooked on the inside and it’s important to get out of the direct heat and into a cool spot if possible. Drinking plenty of water will also help cool down but dehydration isn’t the only reason diabetics can feel too hot.
When the human body gets overheated we sweat. Although most of us hate sweating, especially in public, it’s a necessary and very clever system the body uses to cool you down. Sweating puts mousisture and water onto the skin and when this evaporates you feel cooler. Just stand in front of a fan after coming out of the bath or shower to see just how effective this can be at cooling the body (seriously I’ve done this too cool down before)! 😉 But in a diabetic body this system doesn’t always work. Some diabetics might suffer from some form of nerve damage or trouble with the blood vessels in the body that stop the body being able to produce so enough. This can lead you to feeling overheated in hot weather. Added to this, if you are in a humid environment then the seat is less likely to evaporate (you just stay wet and sticky instead) making you less likely to cool down!
There is also the chance that dry skin can make you feel worse in the heat too. I know from personal experience that the drier my skin is the worse I cope in the heat and of course dry skin can be caused both by dehydration and the insulin you inject itself.
I’ve already explained how medication like insulin does not cope well in extreme heat and might not work properly unless you keep it cool. But there are other medical items that diabetics use which are prone to some damage or not working properly in heat. Glucose monitors and test strips may not work properly in the heat. Test strips always have a suitable temperature printed on the box and it’s important to make sure that these aren’t kept in excessive heat as the tests strips may not work properly and might display the wrong results. It’s also worth pointing out that if you are sweating a lot and your hands are particularly sweaty then you should wash them and dry them as any excessive water (sweat or otherwise) added to the blood you test can also affect the results.
Other devices like continuous glucose monitors and pumps might struggle in the heat too. You can’t keep the insulin found in pumps in the fridge when it’s attached to you body so you have to be careful and test often, but users of both insulin pumps and and the new continuous glucose monitors (which invoves sticking a permenent needle on to the back of your arm for two weeks, for example) need to also be careful about any glue that is used to stick these devices to the skin. I don’t have personal experience with either of these devices but glue doesn’t work that well in extreme heat so you need to make sure your devices don’t fall off!
The reality of hot weather
Although the above is a list of some of the things that can go wrong in extreme weather, it doesn’t mean that all diabetics will suffer. But it does mean that some of them will and for some diabetics and others with chronic health conditions, the extreme weather changes and in particular extremely hot weather of the past week or so (and that of the future) will make coping with their conditions much harder. I’ve had many experiences over the years with the hot weather and while I do love the general hotter air of summer and a lovely breeze, I don’t cope well when temepratures outside teeter around 30C and above. What makes it all the worse (especially during my time at secondary school) was the lack of understanding from others who clearly loved the hot weather and thought I was being a grump for saying that I didn’t enjoy it.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the heat and I know that many of you will be loving the bright sun and the chance to sunbathe and bake in that heat. But the next time you mention how glorious and wonderful the weather is, perhaps spare a thought for those who don’t cope so well and understand that while you may love the extreme temperatures, there are others who won’t. And for them, a little understanding and care will go a long way to making everyone feel better so we can all try to enjoy every day of the summer 🙂
Do you love the hot weather, especially heatwaves or prefer cooler weather? Do you have a chronic health condition that’s affected by extreme weather changes? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂