Written by Melissa McKenna

For the past 10 years, I have been taking prescription medications for anxiety, depression, and ADHD. I’m not ashamed of this, and I don’t try to hide it. I view it as being no different than if I were to say that I take medication for diabetes, migraines, or low blood pressure. For this reason, I am writing about my personal experience with prescription medications and their potential side effects.

I’d like to include a disclaimer that while the side effects I’ve experienced aren’t always pleasurable, they are by no means reasons that I’d consider stopping my medications. The benefits I receive from taking my medications vastly outweigh the few side effects I experience. Also, the side effects experienced can differ from person to person. I highly recommend speaking to your doctor about any potential health concerns or questions you may have.

Every month, I call up my local pharmacy, place a refill of my prescriptions, and drive out to pick them up. Typically, there are stickers adhered to my pill bottles warning me about the effects of alcohol and cannabis when taking these medications. I’ve laughed in the past at the “Do not operate heavy machinery” warnings, as I always immediately think about forklifts and cranes—when I know that this includes (and is referring to) cars, trucks, ATVs, motorcycles, and boats.

Last summer, when BC was covered with an unprecedented heat dome with temperatures climbing to over 40°C, I stumbled across a post on social media about the risk of increased heat intolerance due to taking prescription medications. I was shocked, as I’d never been informed of this—and from the comments on the post, it seemed I wasn’t alone. In conducting my research for this blog post, I found a few studies dating back through the past decade or two, so these side effects aren’t a new discovery, but the information available on them is still minimal.

As we all know, there are risks associated with spending time in the summer sun and heat. Sunburn, dehydration, and heat stroke are some of these risks.1 We’ve all felt exhausted or burnt our noses after too much time in the sun.

Our bodies have a thermoregulatory system that helps us maintain a consistent inner body temperature. Typically, our internal temperature falls somewhere between 36.5°–37.5° C. If we get too cold or too hot, our body compensates and reacts to help ensure it stays within this range. This is the reason we shake when we’re cold and sweat when we’re warm. If our body temperature changes, sensors in our central nervous system send messages to our hypothalamus, which then alerts our other organs and body systems that affect how our body functions.2 

However, certain physical ailments can interfere with this thermoregulatory system and affect how our body responds to sun and heat. Increased sweating (hyperhidrosis) can put you at a greater risk of dehydration. Photosensitivity means that you’re more sensitive to sunlight and susceptible to sunburn. Age can also affect how effectively our bodies respond to heat. But did you know that some medications can also make it harder for your body to regulate its response to heat?3 

Surprisingly, this list of medications is long, and it includes many over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen, antihistamines, antibiotics, treatments for acne, and more. Medications such as antipsychotics, stimulants for ADHD, and antidepressants, as well as substances used recreationally, are also associated with an increased risk of heatstroke.4  

If you or your loved ones take any medication, I recommend researching its side effects, and in particular, whether there is a known link between the prescription and photosensitivity or heat sensitivity. If you know there is an increased risk of heat intolerance, there are some precautions you can take to protect yourself:

  • Find a way to monitor the temperature of your home. 
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. 
  • Avoid heavy exercise or physical activity during peak hours of heat. 
  • Seek shade or time indoors, and don’t sit in the sun for lengthy periods. 
  • Wear loose, lightweight clothing and a hat. 
  • Make sure you have water and snacks with you when you leave the house. 
  • Try to avoid spending time outside during the peak temperatures of the day. 
  • Using a cold cloth on the back of your neck or dipping your feet in cold water can help cool you down. 
  • Wear sunscreen and reapply generously throughout the day.
  • Spend time indoors at public libraries, recreation centres, or community centres.2,5

You can also talk to your doctor or pharmacist about other methods that may be specific to you about how to stay cool. 

It’s important to recognize that because of the medication you take, there are additional steps you need to take to ensure your well-being. If your loved one is taking any psychiatric medications, ensure that they have the resources necessary to stay safe this summer.