When we think of dangerous weather, raging thunderstorms and tornadoes come to mind. But a sweltering day can be even more treacherous. According to data from the National Weather Service, hot temperatures harm more people—and take more lives—each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined.
"The most frustrating thing is that these illnesses are entirely preventable," says Mark Cichon, D.O., chair of the emergency medicine department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. The problem is that many people don't take hot-weather hazards seriously. Too often, they ignore warnings and the symptoms of overheating, such as fatigue and dizziness, until it's too late. The result: Over the past three decades, the number of heat-related fatalities has nearly quadrupled. It's a nationwide problem, with even more deaths reported during heat advisories in the North and Midwest than the South.
Recent weather has gone on record as some of the steamiest to date, and experts believe that scorching temperatures are sure to strike this summer, too. Read on to brush up on the warning signs of heat illness and the safety measures that can keep your family cool and collected all season.
Dos and Don'ts of Heat Safety
- DO leave your house and seek air-conditioning if it's stifling inside. Head to a friend's home, a movie theater, or a public cooling center (call your town hall or text SHELTER plus your ZIP code to 43362 to find one near you).
- DO have small, frequent meals. The more you consume in one sitting, the harder your body has to work to digest the food. This effort raises your internal temperature, which can make you feel uncomfortably warm.
- DO take kids and pets with you each time you leave the car. Because heat gets trapped, the interior temperature can jump nearly 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. Even if you park in the shade and crack the windows, the temperature can spike to more than 100 degrees.
- DON'T rely solely on your electric fan. A study in the Cochrane Library found that sitting in front of a fan in 95-degree weather might cause you to feel even hotter by reducing your ability to sweat. Wait until evening to switch on that fan, when it can draw in cooler air.
- DON'T drink too much booze. A frosty beer or frozen cocktail might feel like a thirst-quencher, but its diuretic effect can lead to dehydration. Alcohol can also dampen your body's natural response system that protects it from overheating.
- DON'T close all the windows in an effort to shut out hot air if you don't have air-conditioning. Without proper circulation, your home will heat up quickly.
How Much Water Do You Need?
It seems simple enough: Drink when you're thirsty. But a parched throat isn't always the best measure of how much you need to sip. For starters, thirst kicks in when you're already around 2 percent dehydrated—and beginning to experience fatigue.
To make sure that you're drinking enough, keep tabs on your consumption. On most days, women need about 9 cups of fluids, while men require 13 cups. (This includes the liquid in foods, such as watermelon or soup.) For each hour of sweat-inducing activity, like running errands or exercising, aim to get another 1½ to 2½ cups. Then continue sipping every 15 minutes afterward. If you work out longer or if it's hot outside, you'll need to replace body-regulating electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, that are lost in sweat. Sports drinks are a good source, but they're often high in sugar. Look for a low-calorie brand, or dilute it with some water.
Bottom line: Drink before you're thirsty, and make sure that you continue to sweat. Light-colored urine is a marker of proper hydration.
Avoid Heat-Related Injuries
On hot days, football players and longdistance runners aren't the only ones in jeopardy. Nearly half of heat-related injuries, such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke, occur in children and teens, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Kids produce more heat and less sweat than adults, so they have a tougher time controlling their internalthermostats.
"They also run around and play in the summer heat," says study author Lara McKenzie, Ph.D., principal investigator for the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Add the fact that they aren't likely to pause a game of tag to cool off, and you've got the perfect formula for overheating. To ensure that your kid plays it safe, give her a water bottle and remind her to drink from it every 10 or 20 minutes. Also encourage her to take frequent breaks.
The Elderly and Those With Chronic Conditions
On the other end of the spectrum, older people and those with chronic diseases are also vulnerable to heatrelated illnesses. Certain conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, can impair organ function and circulation—two factors that keep the body from cooling down properly.
Prescription drugs can also interfere with temperature regulation, so speak with your doctor about your—or a family member's—risk at the start of the summer.