Protestors are at risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and their masks make it worse. Here's how to stay safe.

Protestors are at risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and their masks make it worse. Here's how to stay safe.
Demonstrators lie face down depicting George Floyd during his detention by police during a protest against police brutality on Boston Common, on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Floyd, an African American, died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)Associated Press
  • There's always a risk for dehydration and heat and exhaustion when you spend hours in the heat without enough liquids.
  • But current protestors may be especially vulnerable because masks can limit oxygen intake and the lack of bathrooms has people avoiding drinking water.
  • Stay as safe as possible by hydrating before you protest, carrying your own water, and knowing the signs of heat-related illnesses.

Dr. Ernest Brown was biking toward protests in Washington, DC, this week when a woman flagged him town: "One girl over there looks like she's dehydrated, she's on the ground," she said.

So Brown, an independent family medicine physician wearing his signature scrubs, rode over to make sure she was OK. She was — thanks to some water and a group of friends who were fanning her — but she wasn't the first such case Brown had seen that day.

"It's very hot," the young woman said about her mask in a video Brown took. "It says 'I can't breathe' and I really can't breathe!"

As people around the country and world take to the streets to protest police brutality — sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after Minneapolis police officers knelt on his neck and pinned him down during an arrest — much attention has been paid to the very real and serious risks of police using tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as the potential for the protests to lead to new surges in coronavirus cases.

But typical summertime health concerns apply too, and in some ways, the conditions of these protests can make them worse. To stay safe, stay hydrated, take it slow, and know the signs of danger.


Masks can limit oxygen intake

Spending long hours in the heat is a risk on its own for issues like dehydration, heat exhaustion, and most seriously, heat stroke. But aspects of these protests up the risk.

For one, there are no public bathrooms open, so people may be intentionally limiting their liquids. Sharing water bottles isn't the greatest idea either, if you're trying to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus, Brown, founder of house-call service Doctors to You, told Insider.

People may also be wearing more or heavier clothing to help protect themselves from rubber bullets.

Protestors are at risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and their masks make it worse. Here's how to stay safe.
In a video, Dr. Ernest Brown fills a squirt gun with a milk of magnesia mixture before heading to a protest against police brutality in DC. The mixture can help counteract tear gas.Dr Ernest Brown

And then there are the masks: while they're critical to mitigate the spread of the virus, they also limit oxygen intake, Brown said, exacerbating heat-related medical issues.


Plus, people who've been largely inactive over the past few months due to the lockdown may get winded even more quickly.

"I think some didn't really expect it to be so difficult," Brown said.

Unlike other times when crowds gather in public places, like the Capital's July 4th celebration or a city marathon, there aren't medical tents with pros on hand. Brown has only seen one other person in scrubs, and he was heading home from work, not staying to help or protest.

Hydrate before you go, and bring your own water

Brown recommends hydrating before you to a protest, bringing your own water and snacks, carrying hand-sanitizer, and, yes, wearing a mask. Just take it slow and if you need to step aside from a march for a few minutes or more to catch your breath, do so.

It's also important to know the signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, and attend with a friend or two so you can keep tabs on each other and seek medical attention if necessary.


Symptoms of dehydration can include thirst, infrequent urination, fatigue, light-headedness or dizziness, confusion, and increased breathing. If caught early, stopping and rehydrating, ideally with a sports drink or other fluid with electrolytes, can resolve the issue.

Protestors are at risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and their masks make it worse. Here's how to stay safe.
A New Yorker holds a banner during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, United States on June 2, 2020 in Lower Manhattan, New York City, United States.Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Heat exhaustion, which is more serious, has many of the same symptoms, but also typically along with heavy sweating and a rapid pulse. It should be treated similarly: stop all activity, rest in a cooler place, and rehydrate.

Seek help if symptoms worsen or don't improve within an hour, or if the person becomes confused or agitated, loses consciousness, or can't drink, according to Mayo Clinic.

The most dangerous, and potentially deadly, heat-related complication is heat stroke, which again has similar features of the other two. But, unlike heat exhaustion, people suffering from a heat stroke are very hot but don't sweat: that's what makes it so serious; their body's natural cooling mechanism no longer works.


It can also come with a headache, disorientation, seizures, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations, and a loss of consciousness.

If you see someone who may be experiencing heat stroke, seek medical attention immediately. While you wait for help to arrive, have the person lie down with their feet slightly elevated in a shaded area, remove some clothing, and apply cool water to their skin and fan them.