It’s Too Darn Hot! Planning for Excessive Heat Events

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Information for Older Adults and Family Caregivers from the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Did you know that each year in the United States more people die from excessive heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods combined?

“An excessive heat event,” or “heat wave” occurs when the summer heat is 10 degrees higher than the average high temperature for a region. For example, 95-degree weather over several days in an area that averages 85 degrees would be an excessive heat event, or heat wave.

This heat is unpleasant. It is also especially dangerous for older people. The longer high temperatures last, the more dangerous the heat becomes.

Where Are Heat Waves Most Dangerous?

Heat waves can be dangerous anywhere, but especially in cities. Streets and buildings take in and keep the heat. This creates “heat islands” that are hotter than areas outside of the city and don’t cool off at night.

In areas with fewer people, more trees and fewer streets and buildings help things cool down overnight.

How Does the Body Cool Itself?

Sweating, or perspiration helps to cool the body. However, under some conditions, perspiration just isn’t enough and people stay hot. This can cause a person’s body temperature to rise rapidly. When this happens, the very high temperatures can damage the brain or other vital organs.

High humidity, when the air is full of water, makes it harder to sweat and cool the body. Drinking alcohol or working or playing outside during the heat can also make it hard for the body to cool down.

What Can Be Done to Help the Body Cool Off?

Prevention is the best medicine. The best way to avoid heat-related problems is to not get overheated.

• Air conditioning is the best defense.
Spending time in air conditioned location, (even a few hours); during
the hottest times of the day can be very helpful. If you don’t have airconditioning in your home, visit family or friends who do. Go to the library, a movie theater, a senior center, or a shopping mall. Check to see if your town has a “cooling center” which is a building with air conditioning where people can gather during a heat wave.

• Take a cool shower or bath.

• Drink lots of fluids, and don’t wait until you feel thirsty. Drink regularly throughout the day and night.

Who is Likely to Suffer Most During a Heat Wave?

• Older Adults: As people get older, the body’s ability to cool itself may not work as well as it used to.

• People with Health Problems: People who are sick are at greater risk
of extreme heat. Some medicines may make it harder for the body to cool off. Being overweight also makes it harder for the body to cool off.

• Live on Top Floors: People who live on the top floors of buildings are more at risk because heat rises and it is often warmer there than on
lower floors.

• No Air-conditioning: People who do not have air conditioning are also likely to experience problems during heat events.

• Bed Ridden: People who are not able to get out of the house and go to places where it is cooler are also at risk.

What Happens When the Body Fails to Cool Down?

When the skin cannot cool down, body temperatures can quickly get too hot. This can cause a health problem called “heat stroke.” Important organs like the brain can overheat and be damaged permanently. In some cases, this can lead to life-long disability or death.

Warning signs of being overheated should be taken very seriously. These signs include:

• Red, hot, dry skin (lack of perspiration)

• Confusion

• Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or smelling things that aren’t there)

How Can I Keep Cool?

• If your heath care provider asks you to limit the amount of fluids you drink, ask how much is safe to drink when it is hot. Be sure to find out an exact amount, such as “one 12-ounce glass” and how often.

• Avoid beverages that contain caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar. These drinks can overheat or dehydrate you. Ask your health care provider if your medicines might dehydrate you. If so, find out what to do about it. Do not stop taking your medicine unless your doctor or nurse says it is ok.

• If you live alone, be sure someone checks on you at least twice a day during a heat wave. Ask a friend or your caregiver to check for signs of heat-related symptoms, such as hot, dry skin, confusion, or hallucinations.

• Call 911 if you need help or medical attention.

Other References

Environmental Protection Agency,
Heat Island Reduction Initiative
http://www.epa.gov/heatisland

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
http://www.cdc.gov/aging/
http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hsb/extremeheat
http://www.cdc.gov/MMWR

Environmental Health Perspectives
http://www.ehp.niehs.nih.gov

National Weather Service,
Heat Wave and Heat Index
http://www.nws.noaa.gov/pa/secnews/heat/

National Weather Service
http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml

American Medical Association,
Heat-Related Illness During Extreme
Emergencies
http://www.ama-assn.org

Heat Wave Awareness Project
http://www.esig.ucar.edu/heat/literate.html

Medline Plus,
Heat Illness
http://www.niapublications.org/
spnagepages/hyperthermia-sp.asp

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