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CDC releases strategies on how to help prevent illness from heat exposure

Last updated March 15, 2020

Approved by: Lester Fahrner, MD

Each year more people in the United States die from extreme heat exposure than from hurricanes, lightening, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. During 1979-1998, 7,421 deaths that occurred in this country were attributed to excessive heat exposure. On average, approximately 300 people die each year from exposure to heat. This year extreme heat may be of particular concern because of the energy problems facing many areas of the country. Air conditioning provides the most protection from heat exposure and heat-related deaths. However, some people may be fearful of high utility bills and limit their use of air conditioning. Such action can place people who are already at risk for heat illness at increased risk. Areas of the country currently facing energy crises may experience a higher-than-average rate of heat-related illness


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Warns that Heat-Related Illness Could Rise This Summer

CDC releases strategies on how to help prevent illness from heat exposure

Each year more people in the United States die from extreme heat exposure than from hurricanes, lightening, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. During 1979-1998, 7,421 deaths that occurred in this country were attributed to excessive heat exposure. On average, approximately 300 people die each year from exposure to heat. This year extreme heat may be of particular concern because of the energy problems facing many areas of the country. Air conditioning provides the most protection from heat exposure and heat-related deaths. However, some people may be fearful of high utility bills and limit their use of air conditioning. Such action can place people who are already at risk for heat illness at increased risk. Areas of the country currently facing energy crises may experience a higher-than-average rate of heat-related illness

CDC recommends that everyone understand the warning signs of heat illness and take special care of those at risk. "Older Americans and young children are at particular risk for heat illness," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "This summer take a few extra minutes to check on your neighbors, friends, and family to ensure their health and safety."

People suffer heat-related illness when their bodies are unable to compensate and properly cool themselves. The body normally cools itself by sweating. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly. Other conditions related to risk include age (the elderly and young children), obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, prescription drug use, and alcohol use.

"Many people think electric fans are sufficient during extreme heat," said Michael McGeehin, PhD, MSPH, Director of CDC’s Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects. "Fans may provide comfort, but they will not prevent heat-related illness when the temperature is in the high 90s."

Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion

Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Warning signs of heat stroke vary but may include the following: an extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees F); red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating); rapid, strong pulse; throbbing headache; dizziness; nausea; confusion; and unconsciousness.

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Those people most prone to heat exhaustion are the elderly, people with high blood pressure, and people working or exercising in a hot environment. The warning signs of heat exhaustion include the following: heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. The skin may be cool and moist. The pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow. If heat exhaustion is untreated, it may progress to heat stroke.

Tips for Preventing and Managing Heat

Take a cool shower or bath.

Drink more fluids (nonalcoholic), regardless of your activity level. Dont wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Warning: If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him or her how much you should drink while the weather is hot.

Don’t drink liquids that contain caffeine, 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.

Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to a shopping mall, senior center, or public library – even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters in your area.

If you must be out in the heat:

Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours.

Cut down on exercise. If you must exercise, drink two to four glasses of cool, nonalcoholic fluids each hour. A sports beverage can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat. Warning: If you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage. Remember the warning in the first "tip" (above), too.

Try to rest often in shady areas.

Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) and sunglasses, and put on sun screen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say "broad spectrum" or "UVA/UVB protection" on their labels).

Additional tips:

Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

NEVER leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle.

Check regularly on those at greatest risk of heat-related illness:

Infants and young children

People aged 65 or older

People who have a mental illness

Those who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure

Visit adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them or signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.

More detailed information can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hsb/extremeheat

CDC protects peoples health and safety by preventing and controlling diseases and injuries; enhances health decisions by providing credible information on critical health issues; and promotes healthy living through strong partnerships with local, national, and international organizations.

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Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: March 15, 2020
Last updated: March 15, 2020