More than 100 million people live in areas covered by serious heat alerts in the United States right now.
The Washington Post just reported that highs near 100 degrees or more “will sprawl from Denver to Charleston, South Carolina, through midweek, while dangerous storms may form along the northern edge of the heat.” Many parts of the country have already hit the low 100s for temperatures in recent weeks, with more heat sure to follow.
People who live in humid areas will feel heat even more intensely. “Oppressive humidity levels will make it feel 5 to 15 degrees hotter, producing heat index values from 100 to 115 degrees over a large swath of the central and eastern lower 48,” The Washington Post reported.
Articles about the weather right now use adjectives like “relentless” and “brutal” to describe current and approaching weather conditions. As Deseret News reporter Amy Joi O’Donoghue reported earlier this week, outcomes include “flood, heat, wind, fire and more.”
Extreme warmth is more than uncomfortable, according to health experts. It poses real health risks for people of all ages, but especially for the very young and for those over about age 60, as well as for people with medical challenges or disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 660 people, most of them older than 60, die each year in the United States because of heat waves. That’s more deaths per year than the combined total for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and by lightning strikes, the CDC says.
“Extreme heat or cold is no joke for older people, including older workers. And they may be in medical crisis before they even recognize it,” Dr. Ronda McCarthy, an environmental and occupational exposure specialist who’s on the steering committee for the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, told the Deseret News during a previous bout of extreme weather.
The National Institute on Aging says hyperthermia — getting overheated — can have heart-stopping consequences for older adults. People over 60 are especially at risk. Worse, they can overheat at 80 degrees.
“What imperils older adults is a combination of mechanics — the internal thermostat of an older adult may not function well — and an inability to recognize or at least extricate oneself from danger. Older adults may not feel thirsty in extreme heat, for instance,” the Deseret News previously reported.
Signs of trouble can be vague or even confusing. The National Institute on Aging says common signs of being overheated include headache, nausea and mild dizziness. Sometimes, the stomach or arms and legs cramp. One might sweat profusely — or not at all. Body temperatures can rise or remain normal, while the skin feels cold and clammy. One’s pulse can race or slow.
Here’s what to do in a heat wave, according to multiple health experts:
- Find shade or take a cool but not cold bath. If you don’t feel better soon, get medical help.
- Learn about cool-down spots in your community. In a heat wave, officials often open cooling centers. In a pinch, go to a movie; they’re usually air-conditioned.
- Drink a lot of fluid. Dehydration can kill.
- Stay indoors when the air is polluted. Pollution makes heat more dangerous.
- Avoid exertion in the heat. Do outdoor tasks like mowing the lawn earlier in the day, before temperatures climb, or later when they start to drop.
- Alcohol intake increases the risk, as do some medications. Know which medications you take make you vulnerable to heat and avoid alcohol during a heat wave.
- Avoid both exercise and crowds when it’s very hot outside.
Employers need to make sure that workers have a safe environment during a heat wave, which includes having water on hand, shade to rest if that’s needed and restroom facilities. Otherwise, workers are tempted to limit fluid intake so they don’t need to use the restroom. And that’s dangerous at any age in high temperatures, McCarthy said.
There are special rules for infants and young children, who must rely on others to keep them cool and hydrated outside. For children, signs of being overheated include high body temperature, hot or red skin — whether it’s damp or dry — a fast, strong pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and cramps or fainting.
Among CDC’s advice for parents:
- Never leave young children in a car on a hot day, even with the windows open.
- Dress kids in cool, light-colored, loose clothing.
- Have them drink plenty of liquid, but avoid sugary drinks or ice-cold drinks.
- Seek medical care immediately if there are signs of heat-related illness.