By Jennifer “Lizzie” MacDonald
When someone hears the terms “unprecedented heat wave” or “heat dome”, he/she might begin some preparation. But, what if you have an autoimmune disease?
Much of the west coast has been under heat advisories, or experiencing record-high temperatures, much earlier in the summer this year, and for extended periods of time. Warnings are abundant, advising people to check on the elderly and vulnerable. Heat, alone, is a potential trigger for an autoimmune flare. Extreme heat, however, needs to be considered carefully.
What does this mean? Our body’s natural immune system is designed to attack a foreign invader when it enters the body, such as a virus or bacteria. Essentially, we have a little army which helps us get back to health by fighting flus, colds, and any number of common illnesses.
Having an autoimmune disease, however, is when the body’s natural immune system begins attacking healthy cells. The immune system has become misguided for reasons that are not fully understood by medical professionals. Depending on the autoimmune disease diagnosis, the immune system is mistakenly attacking different body systems—the central nervous system in MS (multiple sclerosis), the peripheral nervous system in CIDP (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy), the GI system in Crohn’s disease, along with many others. The list of autoimmune diseases is lengthy.
One hallmark of autoimmune disease is the occasional flare up. Many factors contribute to these, and can help you identify their triggers, especially with the guidance of your treating doctor. An autoimmune flare-up is any number of symptoms that increases specific to your disease. Some general autoimmune flare symptoms include increased fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain, irritability, insomnia, headaches, depression, low fever, brain fog or the inability to think clearly, along with many others. If you ever feel your symptoms are causing worrisome discomfort, call your doctor.
Many people with autoimmune diseases have a level of heat intolerance. Living in places which are generally warm during the summer may require you to take extra precautions in order to stay cool, or spend the hot days indoors. As a patient, you might have learned how to “beat the heat” if it affects you.
Stress – emotional or physiological – is a major cause of autoimmune disease flare-ups. Extreme heat is physically stressful. Hot temperatures have the potential to disrupt the delicate temperature-regulated balance of the body, especially in neurological autoimmune diseases. It is common to feel overheated beyond normal. Even temperature fluctuations may be intolerable, and subsequently trigger symptoms. Have you ever shivered when it’s hot, and had an increase in sweat when it’s cold?
Specifically, when someone gets too much sun or UV exposure, the skin will turn red, dry out, and new skin is replaced. It can be as noticeable as a sunburn, or so subtle you don’t notice it happened. The process is called “apoptosis” – a normal immune response where cells basically self-destruct in order to create healthy ones.
Heat and sun exposure may result in increased symptoms that last for a few days and will heal naturally. Or treatment may be required. Closely monitor how you feel in hot weather. And keep in contact with your doctor.
Practical ways you can manage a heat wave or hot summer days include:
Having a fan or air conditioning available
Using ice packs over clothes or wrapped in towels on the body
Taking a cool bath or shower
Avoiding the outdoors during the hottest times of day
Knowing the side effects of your medications with regard to sun exposure
If you need go out:
Be sure to wear sunscreen
Take a hat
Dress in cool, lightweight, and breathable clothes which cover your arms and legs
Equip yourself with plenty of cold water
Additionally, inexpensive cooling scarves can be found online. Check out this one on Amazon: Fabrics are available with built-in SPF ratings. If you live in a place which is preparing for an upcoming heatwave, check your city or community website. Many cities offer community “cooling centers”.
My favorite summer drink to beat the heat is watermelon water. Mix a few chunks of watermelon with some cucumber and mint. Throw it in a blender with some ice, and enjoy how cold, hydrating, and refreshing it can be. Any fruit will work.
If hot temperatures have you feeling down or ill, give yourself plenty of grace. Grab something cold and know you are not alone.
If you need more ideas or resources on handling the heat with an autoimmune disease, contact me!
Throughout her journey, she has become impassioned with sharing her knowledge and serving as an ambassador for patient independence, wellness, and recovery. This not only lead to patients’ relief and comfort, it has provided an opportunity for doctors to utilize a patient advocate for more effective and time-saving care in their practices.
Lizzie is an outspoken supporter of creating community through support groups as well as through the invaluable connection of one-on-one interactions for patients who are managing chronic/complex illnesses. Through her efforts, she has emboldened patients to share their ideas, goals, and triumphs, as well as live life to the fullest, regardless of their condition(s).
Lizzie can be reached at Jennifer.MacDonald@repharmacy.com