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:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. During hot weather you will need to increase your fluid intake, regardless of your activity level. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. During heavy exercise in a hot environment, drink two to four glasses (16-32 ounces) of cool fluids each hour. Warning: If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask how much you should drink while the weather is hot.
  • Don't drink liquids that contain alcohol, or large amounts of sugar—these actually cause you to lose more body fluid. Also avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.
  • Replace Salt and Minerals. Heavy sweating removes salt and minerals from the body. These are necessary for your body and must be replaced. If you must exercise, drink two to four glasses of cool, non-alcoholic fluids each hour. A sports beverage can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat. However, if you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage or taking salt tablets.
  • Wear Appropriate Clothing and Sunscreen. Wear as little clothing as possible when you are at home. Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Sunburn affects your body's ability to cool itself and causes a loss of body fluids. It also causes pain and damages the skin. If you must go outdoors, protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) along with sunglasses, and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say "broad spectrum" or "UVA/UVB protection" on their labels) 30 minutes prior to going out. Continue to reapply it according to the package directions.
  • Schedule Outdoor Activities Carefully. If you must be outdoors, try to limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours. Try to rest often in shady areas so that your body's thermostat will have a chance to recover.
  • Pace Yourself. If you are not accustomed to working or exercising in a hot environment, start slowly and pick up the pace gradually. If exertion in the heat makes your heart pound and leaves you gasping for breath, STOP all activity. Get into a cool area or at least into the shade, and rest, especially if you become lightheaded, confused, weak, or faint.
  • Say Cool Indoors. Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library—even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters in your area. Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off. Use your stove and oven less to maintain a cooler temperature in your home.
  • Use a Buddy System. When working in the heat, monitor the condition of your co-workers and have someone do the same for you. Heat-induced illness can cause a person to become confused or lose consciousness. If you are 65 years of age or older, have a friend or relative call to check on you twice a day during a heat wave. If you know someone in this age group, check on them at least twice a day.
  • Monitor those at High Risk. Although anyone at any time can suffer from heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others. Visit adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.
    • Infants and young children are sensitive to the effects of high temperatures and rely on others to regulate their environments and provide adequate liquids.
    • People 65 years of age or older may not compensate for heat stress efficiently and are less likely to sense and respond to change in temperature.
    • People who are overweight may be prone to heat sickness because of their tendency to retain more body heat.
    • People who overexert during work or exercise may become dehydrated and susceptible to heat sickness.
    • People who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure, or who take certain medications, such as for depression, insomnia, or poor circulation, may be affected by extreme heat.
  • Adjust to the Environment. Be aware that any sudden change in temperature, such as an early summer heat wave, will be stressful to your body. You will have a greater tolerance for heat if you limit your physical activity until you become accustomed to the heat. If you travel to a hotter climate, allow several days to become acclimated before attempting any vigorous exercise, and work up to it gradually.
  • Use Common Sense. Remember to keep cool and use common sense:
    • Avoid hot foods and heavy meals—they add heat to your body.
    • Drink plenty of fluids and replace salts and minerals in your body. Do not take salt tablets unless under medical supervision.
    • Dress infants and children in cool, loose clothing and shade their heads and faces with hats or an umbrella.
    • Limit sun exposure during mid-day hours and in places of potential severe exposure such as beaches.
    • Do not leave infants, children, or pets in a parked car.
    • Provide plenty of fresh water for your pets, and leave the water in a shady area.

This information provided by NCEH's Health Studies Branch.

Heat Disorder Symptoms

  • SUNBURN: Redness and pain. In severe cases swelling of skin, blisters, fever, headaches. First Aid: Ointments for mild cases if blisters appear and do not break. If breaking occurs, apply dry sterile dressing. Serious, extensive cases should be seen by physician.
  • HEAT CRAMPS: Painful spasms usually in the muscles of legs and abdomen with heavy sweating. First Aid: Firm pressure on cramping muscles or gentle massage to relieve spasm. Give sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue water.
  • HEAT EXHAUSTION: Heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale, clammy skin; thready pulse; fainting and vomiting but may have normal temperature. First Aid: Get victim out of sun. Once inside, the person should lay down and loosen his or her clothing. Apply cool, wet cloths. Fan or move victim to air conditioned room. Offer sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue water. If vomiting continues, seek immediate medical attention.
  • HEAT STROKE (or sunstroke): High body temperature (106° F or higher), hot dry skin, rapid and strong pulse, possible unconsciousness. First Aid: HEAT STROKE IS A SEVERE MEDICAL EMERGENCY. SUMMON EMERGENCY MEDICAL ASSISTANCE OR GET THE VICTIM TO A HOSPITAL IMMEDIATELY. DELAY CAN BE FATAL. While waiting for emergency assistance, move the victim to a cooler environment reduce body temperature with cold bath or sponging. Use extreme caution. Remove clothing, use fans and air conditioners. If temperature rises again, repeat process. Do NOT give fluids. Persons on salt restrictive diets should consult a physician before increasing their salt intake.

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

  • Make sure your child's safety seat and safety belt buckles aren't too hot before securing your child in a safety restraint system, especially when your car has been parked in the heat.
  • Never leave your child unattended in a vehicle, even with the windows down.
  • Teach children not to play in, on, or around cars.
  • Always lock car doors and trunks--even at home--and keep keys out of children's reach.
  • Always make sure all children have left the car when you reach your destination. Don't leave sleeping infants in the car ever!

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

Last Updated: 12/21/15