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Wet socks can make a difference: Tips from readers on keeping cool without AC

Malaka Gharib/ NPR

How do you stay cool without an air conditioner in a year of record-breaking heat?

Last week we featured a story by heatwave researcher Dr. Gulrez Shah Azhar about how he dealt with brutally high temps while growing up in India with no A/C. And we asked NPR readers to share their tips.

Here's a selection of reader responses, edited for length and clarity. And we also asked Azhar to offer his take on their advice – as well as to share additional insights.

Watch what you eat!

Colette Parry, Boston, Mass.: When I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, we never cooked during the day in the summer. We ate a lot of no-cook meals like corn and bean salad (recipe: can of black beans, a bag of frozen corn, a chopped red pepper or other veg and seasoning/dressing to taste). Anything that required cooking, we did at night and then either ate it cold during the day or heated up in the microwave. Azhar: Haha, this is so clever – simple and so ingenious. I am all for it!

Meg T., Portland, Maine: Something I learned while visiting India was to eat plenty of cooling foods like watermelon and cucumber. On super hot days I will switch to mostly those foods and it makes an incredible difference in the temperature of my body and the ability to deal with the heat. Azhar: Yes, foods with lots of fluids and electrolytes are super helpful in keeping one cool and hydrated. I would also add yogurt-based drinks like raita and chhas (buttermilk) to this list.

Anthea Peck, Sebastopol, Calif.: As a kid from Georgia growing up in India, I have SO many memories of the heat. I remember getting heat exhaustion when I was 10 after riding a horse in the early morning. I remember my father (who worked for the World Health Organization) giving me U.N. oral rehydration packets to carry around. My school told us to carry salt packets. Azhar: Oh yes, this is so smart. Either an ORS pack or simply mix a spoon of sugar and a pinch of salt in a glass of water to replenish all the electrolytes lost in sweat.

Water yourself

Laurisa Rich, Martha's Vineyard, Mass.: When I lived in the tropics, I found it ever so helpful to keep my hair wet and dripping. The evaporative action on the head and shoulders is so refreshing and helps to stay cool. Azhar: Yes, this is one of those under-appreciated but cool ways of staying cool! But be careful and avoid hard water as it may harm your hair.

Jeff Weit, Atascadero, Calif.: Growing up near East Los Angeles we were too far from the ocean to receive any of its cooling effects, so we relied on my mom for ways to cool down in the hot summers. For instance, we'd use our daytime water guns, aka our mom's Amway squirt bottles, to spray ourselves as we lay in bed while my brother and I fought over how to direct the box fan for bedtime. Azhar: In India it would most likely be a table fan or a pedestal fan. For playing with water we would use squirt bottles to spray water. In fact, the onset of summer is celebrated with a festival called "Holi" where we spray colors - both dry and wet (using water balloons and water bottles).

Sleep smart — and cool

Scott Taylor, Lawrence, Kan.: When we lived in southern Arizona, some of the older houses had an "Arizona room." I asked a native Arizonan about these projecting, three-sided screened porches. He explained that before they had air conditioning, families would sleep there. Being open to the breeze on three sides, it was much cooler than the main house with just the windows open. Azhar: A terrific idea. It is such a nice way to stay cool.

L. Chunn, Prescott, Ariz.: I grew up in Monrovia, a suburb of Los Angeles, without air conditioning, and my sister and I had a couple of favorite solutions to keep cool on hot summer days in the 1950s. August and September were always unbearably hot. We took advantage of a cement floor that had been tiled over in a large room. We would strip down to our underwear, grab a good book and a pillow and lie down on the cold floor. It never disappointed! When the spot we had chosen became too warm from the heat of our bodies, we would just roll over to another spot. Many a delightful book was read that way, although if we tried that today, we'd never be able to get back up again! Azhar: I too remember sleeping on the cemented roof after spraying water on it. The evaporating water cools off the roof, and we would spread out white / light colored sheets and lie on them at night. The sheets were important so we could see any insects crawling around (never found one - i think they too were exhausted after the day in the sun).

Kevin Webb, Cave Creek, Ariz.: A friend who grew up in Phoenix in the 1960's-70's and didn't have AC had a variation on the hacks you mentioned for sleeping. He slept on a cot in the backyard at night, and his mom would put a wet sheet, just normal bed linens, over him. Evaporative cooling made sleeping possible. Azhar: Older homes were built around a central courtyard or veranda. That's where people would sleep at night in the summer. Elders would keep a flashlight, a transistor radio, a stick and a whistle close by. And then sometimes there would be a chowkidar (guard) walking at night loudly shouting a supposedly reassuring phrase — jaagte raho (keep awake). And I would wonder about his choice of words: Why should I keep awake if this fellow is walking around at night to protect us?!

Ice packs are your pals

Anne James, San Leandro, Calif.: I live in an older home without air conditioning. One thing I do is keep ice packs in my freezer.About 30 minutes before bed I place them between the sheets to cool off the mattress, which often gets very warm. Depending on how hot it is I may lay on the ice packs as well. Azhar: Cool!

Lisa Downey, Lahaina, Hawaii: Another tip (looking at you menopausal sisters) is to use a gel pack from the freezer, wrapped in a cotton tea towel, under your neck — and perhaps a second gel pack on your chest at bedtime. Placing your wrists on the gel pack can also help cool down those hot flashes. Cotton tea towels work well for wrapping as the natural fibers won't make you feel hotter as synthetic materials do. You can wrap the gel pack with one, two or even three layers, depending on how cold you want it. Azhar: This sounds so cool! I should try this.

Jackie Bencke, Kumamoto, Japan: You know those little packs of gel/ice packs that you get to keep food cool? I freeze them and put them in a small DIY cloth cover and pin them into the armpits of a few shirts while I make my way to work in the morning. Game changer! (They sell these things in Japanese stores as thin gel "pack" stick-ons that adhere right to the fabric of clothing but who wants to add more plastic to the oceans?) Azhar: Yes I have read aboutcooling vests.

Homemade AC

Ann Wasgatt, Roseville, Calif: I grew up in California before air conditioning. My grandmother closed all the curtains on the sunny side of the house. Then she put ice cubes in a tray and turned on a fan to blow over the tray. When I worked summers cooking the weenies and beanies at the food stand under the bleachers at the race track, it wasn't air-conditioned either, but my grandmother's old trick worked there too. Azhar: That's smart! Yes, it makes so much sense to have heavy curtains drawn when it's sunny outside.

Keep those wrists cool

Nancy Gerhardt, Westminster, Colo.: I grew up in the south without A/C and my mom taught me to run cold water over the inside of my wrists. Azhar: Yes, there's this idea of pulse or pressure points. Blood vessels in these places are so close to the skin that you can cool off your blood and body temperature by getting the area in contact with cool water.

Roger Crescentini, Tampa, Fla.: I was a child in Columbus, Ga., in the late '50s. Kids like me were able to get a quick cool-down by spending 5 cents to buy a 6.5 oz. Coke and quickly putting it between our wrists. The shock of the sudden temperature change from the chilled bottle raced throughout our bodies. The technique included keeping only our wrists in contact with the cold glass to concentrate the effect. The trick was often used then and it still works now! Azhar: Oh wow, never thought of that! But to avoid the temptation of those empty calories I would do this with a can of water!

Sock it to me

Anonymous: My daughter-in-law, who grew up in New Orleans, told me she wore wet socks to bed to keep cool on hot nights. I've tried it, and it works! Azhar: OK, I am going to do this tonight!

And in conclusion ....

Some closing thoughts from Azhar:

Many of us believe that we can not win against the wrath of Surya the sun god in summers (when he is especially angry)! To please him some visit his temple, a UNESCO world heritage site in India's Odisha state.

So we do not ever, ever take summer heat lightly. And always be prepared.

One of the childhood lessons drilled into my head was to always be aware of your hydration status. And drink water even if in small sips as soon as you do any physical activity. Carrying a water bottle if going out is not just common sense but is life-saving.

When feeling hot, go take a cold shower or at least periodically splash water on your face and hands and douse your head in water.

Another lesson was to never go out on an empty stomach — always eat something before going out so your body has salt and electrolytes. Even if you don't feel like eating a large meal, a light snack will do the trick.

Heavy physical activity — like agriculture and fieldwork — can be done during cooler parts of the day. And if possible, work in the shade, under a tree. (Thanks to our forefathers for planting them for us! And we return the favor by planting trees now even when we know we aren't going to enjoy that shade in our lifetime. Our kids will. And that's what makes a civilization!).

Rabaris(a nomadic tribe in western India) and many other tribal communities use small mirrors on their clothes to reflect sunlight. The choice of color in their clothes is also ingenious. They cleverly make use of this fact that black not only takes in heat faster than white it also gives off heat much faster than white. Due to the nature of work, women frequently go in and out of their tents while men grazing livestock stay out for longer durations. Therefore to stay cool it makes sense for women to wear darker colors (these hues cool down fast as soon as women go indoors) and men to wear lighter colors (they heat up more slowly than darker colors during prolonged periods of time outdoors).

Right from the British colonial times to nowadays in India, schoolchildren (like me) during English poetry classes have always wondered why English poets would expound on warm summer days. For us in the Global South, there wasn't much to be joyful about blistering, burning summers (except the mangofruit). Summer was a matter of survival, one day at a time, one hour at a time, every day.

Sadly, now this seems to be true for the entire world.

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Bec Roldan
Bec Roldan (they/them) is the 2023 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at NPR. They are a 5th year Ph.D. candidate and science journalist developing new synthetic routes to make a class of biologically interesting compounds found in red wine at the University of Michigan.