June 15, 2022 – Talk about a summer sizzler: A record-breaking heat wave is making its way across the United States this week.
Moving from the south and central Plains, the heat wave will expose 230 million people to temperatures over 90 F, while an estimated 45 million people will experience triple-digit temperatures, according to CNN. Through Wednesday, at least 140 cities have the potential to reach record-high temperatures. Overall, heat waves are becoming more frequent, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying they’re occurring more often than they once did in major cities across the country. (In the 1960s, the average was two per year; in the 2010s, that number rose to six.)
Exposure to high temperatures also raises the potential for health issues associated with the heat. According to the CDC, an average of 702 heat-related deaths occur in the United States each year. As this week’s heat wave comes just before the official start of summer, read on for a look at signs of heat-related illness and how to stay safe and cool as temperatures rise.
Keep Your Cool – Literally
Keeping cool is key to staying healthy during a heat wave. Staying indoors in an air-conditioned area can keep your body cool and prevent heat-related illness. If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, you can visit public spaces like shopping malls or libraries to stay out of the heat for as long as possible. Many communities also host designated cooling centers for anybody to visit and stay out of the hot weather. You can contact your local health department to see if this is possible in your community.
It’s also key to stay out of the sun during heat waves, says Cedric Dark, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“If you are able to, stay out of heat, especially during the hottest times of the day, usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he says, emphasizing the importance of preventing sickness during heat waves.
Scheduling outdoor activities and errands for the morning or evening when temperatures are less harsh can help prevent you from getting sick in the heat. If you are outside, it can also be helpful to wear lightweight clothing so that you don’t overheat.
In dangerously hot weather, recognizing the signs of heat-related sickness is essential. Signs include weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, excessive sweating, and fainting. Dark describes heat-related sickness as a “spectrum,” ranging from mild heat rashes to fatal heat stroke. In cases of heat sickness, “the best thing to do is to stop what you are doing, rest, get in shade or indoors,” he advises.
Staying hydrated is also crucial for staying healthy in hot weather. It’s beneficial to drink water throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty, according to the CDC. If you are exercising or working outside during a heat wave, drinking sports drinks can also help replace the salts and electrolytes lost from sweating. Avoiding drinks containing caffeine, sugar, or alcohol -- as these can all contribute to dehydration in hot weather -- is also paramount.
You can read more on staying safe in extreme heat and knowing the signs of heat exhaustion here.