While we enjoy everything that a nice hot, sunny day affords us, we must also keep in mind the potential dangers of extended exposure to soaring temperatures. Residents want to know how to prepare for and protect themselves and their families from the hot summer sun.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat exposure resulted in more than 9,000 deaths in the U.S. between 1979 and 2003. It's easy to see the importance of knowing how to stay safe in summer weather. The CDC also reports that heat-related deaths are one of the deadliest weather-related health outcomes in the United States. Even though all heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, each year approximately 650 people succumb to extreme heat.
Hyperthermia is a condition resulting from exposure to extreme heat in which the body is unable to properly cool. This results in a rapid rise in body temperature. Evaporation of sweat is the normal way to remove body heat, but when the humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat. Exposure to excessive heat can directly or indirectly cause some illnesses and can exacerbate many preexisting conditions, such as heart and respiratory diseases.
Of the heat-related illnesses, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the most serious. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include muscle cramping, fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or fainting. Ironically, a patient with heat exhaustion might have cool and moist skin, indicating that the body’s ability to cool itself is still present, but the patient’s pulse rate is fast and weak, and breathing is rapid and shallow. If untreated, heat exhaustion may progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency. It occurs when the body's temperature reaches 104 degrees because of long periods in the heat or physical exertion in the heat. Our bodies are normally pretty good at staying around the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees. When we are in very hot and humid climates, our bodies may not be able to cool themselves off as quickly. This causes heat stroke.
Heat stroke must be treated by medical professionals as soon as it occurs. If it is not treated promptly, it is likely to result in death within a short period of time. The window of time for treatment is about 30 minutes, after which permanent damage occurs and death is imminent. Most people suffering heat stroke will have symptoms of altered sweating, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, flushing of the skin, headache, and changes in behavior. The person may even seem confused and not able to think clearly. Call 911 immediately and use methods to cool the body down while waiting for medical help to arrive.
Heat stroke is among the leading causes of death in young adults and teens, mostly because heat stroke occurs during practices and outdoor sporting events. In addition to athletes, outdoor workers, infants, and the elderly are prone to suffering heat stroke. Infants are at risk because it does not take much for their body temperature to increase, and they cannot cool off quickly. The elderly may not be able to regulate their temperatures, either. The other significant factor that puts the elderly at risk is that many are on some type of medication that is likely to cause dehydration. You simply cannot sweat when you are dehydrated.
Following some basic heat safety tips can keep you safe when temperatures climb above 90 degrees. During the hottest hours of the day stay inside an air-conditioned building, if possible. Close your blinds and curtains to block direct heat from the sun. Since heat rises, stay on the lowest level of your home and use a fan to move the air.
Remember to dress lightly and to use lightweight covers when sleeping. Stay hydrated to prevent heat-related illnesses. Avoid drinking alcohol, carbonated beverages, and caffeine when temperatures are high. These all lead to dehydration. If you feel nauseous, start vomiting, or experience cramps, call 911 immediately.
This column was written by Jane Perkins, fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.