What’s the number-one cause of weather-related deaths? It’s not tornadoes, lightning, or floods. It’s excessive heat, when temperatures are 10 degrees or more above average and often combine with excessive humidity. At this time of the year, it’s important to listen to local weather forecasts and stay aware of the temperature highs and the heat index, which is the temperature the body feels when the effects of heat and humidity are combined. Remember that exposure to direct sunlight can increase the heat index by as much as 15 degrees.
The American Red Cross suggests that you prepare for a heat wave by having a plan to stay as cool as possible wherever you are. If you don’t have air conditioning, choose places you could go for relief from the heat during the warmest part of the day, such as schools, libraries, theaters, or malls. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids even if you don’t feel thirsty, but avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol. Eat small meals and eat more often.
Take frequent breaks if you must work outdoors. Check on family, friends and neighbors who do not have air conditioning, or spend much of their time alone. The elderly, young, sick or overweight are more likely to become victims of excessive heat and may need help. And check on your animals frequently to ensure that they are not suffering from the heat.
Excessive heat can cause illness that begins with cramps in the legs or abdomen. Seek shelter from the sun in a cool place and drink water, milk or a sports drink, but do not give salt tablets. Heat exhaustion can cause cool, moist, pale, ashen or flushed skin, along with headache, nausea, dizziness or weakness. For treatment, you can loosen clothing and give the person about 4 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes. If their condition doesn’t improve or they refuse water or vomit, call 9-1-1 for immediate help.
Heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke when body systems are overwhelmed by heat and begin to stop functioning. Look for extremely high body temperature, red skin which may be dry or moist, loss of consciousness, a rapid, weak pulse or rapid, shallow breathing, confusion, vomiting, and seizures. This is a medical emergency, so call 9-1-1 for immediate help. In the meantime, you can rapidly cool the body by immersing the person up to the neck in cold water, or douse or spray the person with cold water.
Don’t wait for an emergency to occur before you’re ready to deal with a heat wave. Staying aware of weather forecasts, having a plan to stay cool and knowing the signs of heat illness can keep you and your family safe when excessive heat strikes.