Heat-related illnesses and deaths are the most dangerous natural hazards in the United States, says Southwest District Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant. “But they are preventable,” she added. “And now is the time for people to become aware of who is at risk and what to do to stay safe.”
Extreme heat contributes to an average of 675 deaths annually, according to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“When high temperatures are accompanied by high humidity, such as we have here in southwest Georgia, the danger of illness and death increases,” Grant said. “Normally, the body cools itself by sweating. But when humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly.”
When that happens, the person’s body temperature rises rapidly. Even short periods of high temperatures can cause serious health problems, said Grant.
Those most at risk of heat-related illness and death include older adults, people living alone, infants, the homeless, people who work or participate in outdoor exercise, people under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases. “However, even young and healthy individuals can fall victim to heat-related illness if they are involved in strenuous physical activity during hot weather,” she said.
The No. 1 protection against heat-related illness and death is air-conditioning, Grant said. “If you do not have air-conditioning in your home, then we recommend you spend time in air-conditioned buildings such as libraries or shopping malls or emergency shelters during heat waves.”
Other tips include:
· Drink plenty of fluids, but stay away from those that are sugary, caffeinated or alcoholic – because they actually cause you to lose more body fluid – and avoid very cold drinks, since they can cause stomach cramps
· Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink fluids
· Wear lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing
· Try to limit outdoor activities to early in the morning or late in the evening, when temperatures are cooler
· Never leave children or pets in cars, even with the windows cracked open
· Avoid direct exposure to sunlight by wearing brimmed hats and wearing sunscreen
· Do not rely on electric fans to prevent heat-related illness when the temperature is above 95 degrees F
It is important to know the symptoms of heat stroke, which is a life-threatening emergency, Grant said. Warning signs of heat stroke include extremely high body temperature (103 degrees F); dizziness; hot, red, dry skin, but no sweating; nausea; confusion; unconsciousness; throbbing headache; and a strong, rapid pulse.
“If you see these symptoms, have someone call 9-1-1 immediately while you begin cooling the victim,” Grant said.
“Please also check on friends, relatives and neighbors who might be at risk of heat-related illness during heat waves,” she said. “Heat-related illnesses are dangerous, but preventable. The proper response can save lives.”
More information is available at www.southwestgeorgiapublichealth.org or www.cdc.gov.