Although June 21 is the official first day of summer, temperatures have been rising around many areas of the country for weeks now. A record-setting heat wave in Arizona, California and Nevada even grounded airplanes in the region, and several weather-related deaths have already been reported.
Heat is the number one cause of weather-related direct fatalities, according to the National Weather Service, and more than 600 people die from complications related to extreme heat every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. People over the age of 65, those living alone and people with chronic medical conditions are particularly at risk.
Heat exhaustion vs. heatstroke
Heat exhaustion, which occurs when the body overheats, is the precursor to heatstroke. Symptoms include muscle cramps, headaches, and nausea or vomiting. When heat exhaustion is not treated, the person becomes at risk for heatstroke, which, without emergency assistance, can lead to death.
You are in heatstroke if your body temp rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, which can cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. Symptoms include altered mental state and behavior, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, rapid breathing and racing heart rate, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Elevated risk factors
People with chronic medical conditions are at elevated risk for heat exhaustion, according to the CDC. They may be less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature and could be taking medications that worsen the impact of extreme heat.
Outdoor workers or those in high-temperature indoor areas are also at increased risk. These include firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers and factory workers. At even greater risk are workers who are 65 or older, are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take certain medications, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The NIOSH website offers resources for workers, including its heat-safety-tool app, for planning outdoor work activities based on how hot it feels throughout the day.
Preventive steps to take
The CDC has a website with specific tips for people 65 and over on dealing with the heat. Here are some of the agency's recommendations.
- Don’t rely solely on a fan to keep you cool during a heat wave, and stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. (Contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area.)
- Drink more water than usual, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
- Check on friends and neighbors during heat waves, and have someone do the same for you.
- Don’t use the stove or oven to cook — it will make you and your house hotter.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Take cool showers or baths.
- Check the local news for health and safety updates.
- Seek medical care immediately if you or someone you are caring for has symptoms of heat-related illness.