Staying healthy in steamy, hot summer weather can be challenging. Failing to do so can be life threatening. That’s why it’s essential to understand the effects of extreme heat on our body and have plans and strategies in place to reduce the impact of high temperatures and humidity. Late July and early August are the period of greatest heat in the Northeast. The media often states that there is a “heat wave” about to happen. Sometimes it is true and sometimes it isn’t but any prolonged period of excessive heat – generally 10 degrees or more above average – combined with excessive humidity is definitely a heat wave. According to FEMA, extreme heat often results in the highest number of fatalities of all weather related disasters in our country.
Where heat exposure is experienced, primary care doctors often see patients who are suffering from heat illness. This may be simply due to too much time in the sun and heat, but it is also possible to acquire heat illness if you exercise or work to the point where your body can’t cool itself down by sweating. Sweating is our body’s natural method of regulating body temperature. If you are can’t sweat, body heat builds up which can result in dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Who is most vulnerable in extreme heat conditions?
The most at-risk groups for heat illness are those who are very young, those with disabilities or excess weight, and the elderly. Infants can sweat a surprisingly large amount because, proportionately, they have a lot of skin. This makes them prone to dehydration. As we age, our ability to regulate our body temperature can become less efficient. Medication can also be a factor, especially those that interfere with the body’s ability to maintain a stable temperature. Diuretics, antihistamines, antipsychotic and beta-blockers can all have this effect. It’s important to ask your doctor if your medications could affect your ability to cope with heat and sun.
Athletes and those who spend a lot of time out in the heat whether working or playing need to acclimatize their body to the heat gradually, increasing exposure a bit at a time and making sure that to replace fluids and take breaks from the heat until they are used to it.
Pay attention to the weather forecast
Extreme heat can happen quickly and without warning. When there is high humidity or a high heat index, the body has to work harder to maintain a normal temperature. If you have an extreme heat warning you should find air conditioning – if you don’t have it at home, call your local government to see if cooling stations are being set up. Avoid strenuous activities like sports. If your child is playing an outdoor sport, see that they are protected from the heat, but also take care that as a spectator you are wearing light clothing, looking for shade and drinking plenty of fluids. Don’t forget to check your family members and neighbors in the event of extreme heat advisories.
Watch for signs of heat illness
Learn the signs of heat-related illness and learn how to respond:
- Signs: Muscle pains or spasms in the stomach, arms, or legs
- Actions: Go to a cooler location. Remove excess clothing. Take sips of cool sports drinks with salt and sugar. Get medical help if cramps last more than an hour.
- Signs: Heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, or fainting
- Actions: Go to an air-conditioned place and lie down. Loosen or remove clothing. Take a cool bath. Take sips of cool sports drinks with salt and sugar. Get medical help if symptoms get worse or last more than an hour.
- Signs: Extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees) taken orally; red, hot, and dry skin with no sweat; rapid, strong pulse; dizziness; confusion; or unconsciousness
- Actions: Call 911 or get the person to a hospital immediately. Cool down with whatever methods are available until medical help arrives.
Preparing for Extreme Heat
In the short term, it may be necessary to seek places in your community where you can go and get cool. This may include libraries, community centers, shopping malls or emergency cooling centers.
In order to prepare your home to keep it cool each of the following steps may help.
- Cover windows with drapes or shades. If you don’t have them, consider tacking fabric over the window while the heat is excessive
- In hot climates, people may only open up their houses at night when the temperature is lower, then close up as soon as the sun rises to keep the heat out as much as possible
- Insulation and weather stripping on doors and windows can keep heat out
- Attic fans can clear hot air
- If possible, install window air conditioners and insulate around them
- Learn to recognize warning signs of heat related illness.
Keeping Safe During a Heat Wave
These are good tips for anyone of any age:
- Never leave a child, adult, or animal alone inside a vehicle on a warm day
- If you’re outside, find shade. Wear a hat wide enough to protect your face
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated
- Do not use electric fans when the temperature outside is more than 95 degrees, as this could increase the risk of heat-related illness. Fans create air flow and a false sense of comfort, but do not reduce body temperature
- Avoid high-energy activities
- Check yourself, family members, and neighbors for signs of heat-related illness