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Heat Safety

Heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States, resulting in hundreds of fatalities each year. In fact, on average, excessive heat claims more lives each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. In the disastrous heat wave of 1980, more than 1,250 people died. In the heat wave of 1995 more than 700 deaths in the Chicago area were attributed to heat. In August 2003, a record heat wave in Europe claimed an estimated 50,000 lives.

North American summers are hot; most summers see heat waves in one or more parts of the United States. East of the Rockies, they tend to combine both high temperature and high humidity, although some of the worst heat waves have been catastrophically dry.

The Hazards of Excessive Heat

When the body heats too quickly to cool itself safely, or when you lose too much fluid or salt through dehydration or sweating, your body temperature rises and heat-related illness may develop. Heat disorders share one common feature: the individual has been in the heat too long or exercised too much for his or her age and physical condition.

Studies indicate that, other things being equal, the severity of heat disorders tends to increase with age. Conditions that cause heat cramps in a 17-year-old may result in heat exhaustion in someone 40 years old, and in heat stroke in a person over 60. Sunburn, with its ultraviolet radiation burns, can significantly retard the skin's ability to shed excess heat. Acclimatization has to do with adjusting sweat-salt concentrations, among other things. The idea is to lose enough water to regulate body temperature, with the least possible chemical disturbance--salt depletion.

What is Extreme Heat?

Conditions of extreme heat are defined as summertime temperatures that are substantially hotter and/or more humid than average for location at that time of year. Humid or muggy conditions, which add to the discomfort of high temperatures, occur when a "dome" of high atmospheric pressure traps hazy, damp air near the ground. Extremely dry and hot conditions can provoke dust storms and low visibility. Droughts occur when a long period passes without substantial rainfall. A heat wave combined with a drought is a very dangerous situation.

Hot Weather Safety Tips

To protect your health when temperatures are extremely high, remember to keep cool and use common sense. The following tips are important:

This information provided by NCEH's Health Studies Branch.

Heat Disorder Symptoms

What to Do

If you see or suspect any signs of heat stroke, you may be dealing with a life-threatening emergency. Have someone call for immediate medical assistance while you begin cooling the victim. Do the following:
  • Get the victim to a shady area.
  • Cool the victim rapidly using whatever methods you can. For example, immerse the victim in a tub of cool water; place the person in a cool shower; spray the victim with cool water from a garden hose; sponge the person with cool water; or if the humidity is low, wrap the victim in a cool, wet sheet and fan him or her vigorously.
  • Monitor body temperature, and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101-102°F.
  • If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital emergency room for further instructions.
  • Do not give the victim fluids to drink.
  • Get medical assistance as soon as possible.
  • Sometimes a victim's muscles will begin to twitch uncontrollably as a result of heat stroke. If this happens, keep the victim from injuring himself, but do not place any object in the mouth and do not give fluids. If there is vomiting, make sure the airway remains open by turning the victim on his or her side.

For more information contact your local American Red Cross Chapter. Ask to enroll in a first aid course.

Children, Adults and Pets Enclosed in Parked Vehicles are at Great RiskNOAA Beat the Heat Graphic

Each year, dozens of children left in parked vehicles die from hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is an acute condition that occurs when the body also absorbs more heat than it can handle. Hyperthermia can occur even on a mild day. Studies have shown that the temperature inside a parked vehicle can rapidly rise to a dangerous level for children, pets and even adults. Leaving the windows slightly open does not significantly decrease the heating rate. The effects can be more severe on children because their bodies warm at a faster rate than adults.

Adults are in danger too. On July 12, 2001, a man died of heatstroke after falling asleep in his car with the windows rolled up in the parking lot of a supermarket in Hinds County, MS.

How Fast Can the Sun Heat a Car?

The atmosphere and the windows of a car are relatively transparent to the sun's shortwave radiation (yellow in figure below) and are warmed little. This shortwave energy, however, does heat objects it strikes. For example, a dark dashboard or seat can easily reach temperatures in the range of 180°F to more than 200°F. These objects, e.g., dashboard, steering wheel, childseat, heat the adjacent air by conduction and convection and give off longwave radiation (infrared), which efficiently warms the air trapped inside a vehicle.

Child Safety Tips

This information is courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Weather Service.

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Last Updated: 7/16/12