Extreme Heat: Don’t Let Hot Summer Temperatures Cause Serious Health Problems

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Heat related deaths and illnesses are preventable yet anually many people succumb to extreme heat.  Historically, from 1979-2003, excessive heat exposure caused 8, 015 deaths in the United States.  During this period, more people in this country died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, floods, and earthquakes combined.  In 2001, 300 deaths were caused by excessive heat exposure.

People suffer heat-related illnesses when their bodies are unable to compensate and properly cool themselves.  The body normally cools itself by sweating.  But under some conditions, sweating just isn’t enough.  In such cases, a person’s body temperature rises rapidly.  Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.

Several factors affect the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather.  When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly.  Other conditions related to the risk include age, obesity, fever, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn and prescription drug and alcohol use.

Because heat stress deaths are preventable, people need to be aware of who is at greater risk, and what actions can be taken to prevent heat related illness or death.  The elderly, the very young, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at highest risk.  However, even young and healthy individuals can succumb to heat if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.  Air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat related illness and death.  If a home is not air-conditioned, people can reduce their risk for heat related illness by spending time in public facilities that are air conditioned.

What is Extreme Heat?

Conditions of extreme heat are defined as summertime temperatures that are substantially hotter and/or more humid than average for location at that time of year.  Humid or muggy conditions, which add to the discomfort of high temperatures, occur when a “dome” of high atmospheric pressure traps hazy, damp air near the ground.  Extremely dy and hot conditions can provoke dust storms and low visibility.  Droughts occur when a long period passes without substantial rainfall.  A heat wave combined with a drought is a very dangerous situation.

During Hot Weather

To protect your health when temperatures are extremly high, remember to keep cool, use common sense.  The following tips are important:

Drink Plenty of Fluids

During hot weather you will need to increase your fluid intake, regardless of your activity level.  Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.  During heavy exercise in a hot environment, drink two to four glasses (16 to 32 ounces) of cool fluids each hour.

Warning:  If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask how you ou much you should drink while the weather is hot.

Don’t drink liquids that contain alcohol, or large amounts of sugar- these actually cause you to lose more body fluid.  Also avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.

Replace salt and minerals

Heavy sweating removes salt and minerals from the body.  These are necessary for your body and need to be replaced.  If you must exercise, drink two to four glasses of cool, non-alcoholic fluids each hour.  A sports beverage can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat.  However, if you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage or taking salt tablets.

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