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How to be safe in the heat

Silhouette of Flying Ring-Billed Gull at Sunrise, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

 

“You look exhausted,” the grocery cashier commented.

“Yes,” I confided, “and I still have to work tonight.”

“At least you work at home,” she smiled, “so you can shower and change into something comfortable.”

It seemed a little odd that she mentioned showering at 9:30 p.m., but after she mentioned it three more times, it was obvious she thought I need a good scrubbing. Must have been the sweat-soaked hair framing my face and the streams free-flowing down my cheeks and neck. Another hot, humid Florida night in what has seemed to be an endless series of heat waves.

Dorothy Gale would have nothing to fear living here. The Wicked Witch of the West would melt on arrival.

But what impact do brutally high temperatures have on the rest of us? Well … they kill some of us, too—according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 700 Americans a year. That’s during a normal summer. A 1995 heat wave caused nearly 700 deaths in Chicago alone.

Scientific American’s Katherine Harmon recently asked Mike McGeehin, director of the CDC’s Environmental Hazards and Health Effects Program to explain the impact high temps have on our bodies. Some things to store in your mind as another hot summer gets underway:

• Understand your vulnerabilities. Those most likely to suffer severe health problems due to extreme heat are elderly people who live in the city and don’t have access to air conditioning. The obese of any age, in any setting, are also at risk—as are healthy people engaged in vigorous exercise or work in the heat. Some medications also make people more susceptible to heat exhaustion, so be sure to check the effects of any medicines you take, particularly if you live in areas prone to high temperature and high humidity. Studies conducted in the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago heat wave indicated those taking diuretics and beta blockers suffered increased symptoms from the heat.

• Protect your body’s cooling system. Like our vehicles, our bodies have cooling systems. We release excess heat by breathing and sweating. But also like our vehicles, our cooling systems can be overwhelmed. That’s most likely to happen when both heat and humidity are exceptionally high, and when extreme temperatures last throughout the night. The body doesn’t get the needed overnight respite from the heat, forcing its systems to work on overdrive. If you must be exposed to the heat for long periods, create breaks that will give your body time to recuperate.

• Watch for these signs. The body’s first, most common reaction to severe temperatures is heat exhaustion, which is treated with rest and hydration in a cool environment. If you begin experiencing headaches, dizziness, perspiring profusely, and especially if you faint, your body is signaling that it needs a break from the heat. Ignore those symptoms and you could transition from heat exhaustion to potentially fatal heat stroke.

When your body becomes overwhelmed by heat, perspiration stops. Once that happens, heat stroke can occur rapidly. Skin becomes red and dry. You begin experiencing muscle cramps, which indicate electrolytes aren’t getting to your muscles. The heat will begin to affect your central nervous system and circulatory system, causing confusion and loss of consciousness. According to a 1998 study, about a quarter of those in the Chicago heat wave who initially survived heat stroke died within the year, while others suffered permanent loss of independent function.

No one knows exactly how much heat the human body can stand. It varies by person. But no matter how physically strong you are, never forget that nature is stronger. Listen to your body and let common sense be your guide to a safe summer.

 

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