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How heat waves can kill -- and how to stay safe

As a potentially record-breaking heat wave grips the nation thi...

Posted: Jul 19, 2019 8:55 AM

As a potentially record-breaking heat wave grips the nation this weekend, doctors are warning people to find air conditioning and stay cool -- or risk a trip to the emergency room and a hospital ice bath.

Extreme temperatures are the most deadly weather events in the United States, consistently killing more people than hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Over the next few days, more than 85% of the lower 48's population will see temperatures above 90°F (32.2°C), according to CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen, and more than half will see temperatures in excess of 95°F (35°C).

While dehydration is a common concern as it gets warmer, "the most worrisome consequence" of high heat is heat stroke, said Dr. Scott Dresden, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University. Heat stroke can cause confusion, seizures and even death, he said.

The condition, also known as hyperthermia or heat illness, occurs when someone's body temperature rises above 104°F (40°C). Usually, we cool ourselves off by sweating and widening our blood vessels, bringing heat to the surface of our skin and letting it dissipate.

But sweating becomes ineffective as humidity rises above 75%. Our bodies can only let off heat when the outside environment is cooler than our internal body temperature of 98.6°F.

In older adults, medications can also impair heat regulation, Dresden said, and children face additional challenges controlling their body temperature as it gets hotter. That can lead to dangerous, sometimes deadly, consequences.

"The first symptoms that people will start to feel can often be cramping and dizziness," Dresden said. Those could be managed at home by getting out of the heat and drinking lots of fluids, he added.

"Other, more serious symptoms are if somebody actually passes out or collapses from the heat," he said. That requires medical attention, and "if friends or family or co-workers are noticing that somebody's confused, that is also a severe sign of possible heat stroke" that would warrant a trip to the hospital.

Left untreated, extreme heat stroke can trigger a dangerously fast heart rate and cause bodily enzymes to stop functioning. Ultimately, multi-organ system failure and death can occur.

Ice baths and wet sheets

Medical interventions for heat-related injuries aren't always the most pleasant. "We typically use ice baths in our emergency department," Dresden said. "We'll do cold water immersion."

That can rapidly cool someone's body temperature, but patients are sometimes treated before they even arrive at the hospital. "Our Chicago fire department will often pack a patient's neck, armpits and groin in ice packs" to target major blood vessels, Dresden said.

Wet sheets and large fans are also used in the hospital to cool patients, especially if ice baths aren't available. But as an emergency room doctor, Dresden emphasized that preventing heat stroke is almost always easier than treating it.

"Especially for young and healthy people, if you're going to be exercising, do it when it's cooler or do it in an air-conditioned gym when it's really hot outside," he said. "For everyone else -- for everyone really -- wear lighter clothing and make sure that you're drinking lots of fluids."

People can gauge how well they're hydrated by looking at their urine. Too dark, Dresden said, and you probably need more water. That can prevent dehydration, which can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness and severe electrolyte abnormalities, he added.

But above all, "try to get out of the heat whenever you can," Dresden said. Many cities, including Chicago and New York, have opened cooling centers that are free to access.

Lives at risk as the climate warms

Experts say that heat waves like this one are only made worse by the ongoing impact of climate crisis. According to last year's National Climate Assessment, the number of hot days in the US is increasing and we can expect to see many more extreme heat days in the future.

Heat waves have also increased in frequency, rising from an average of two per year to six per year in the last five decades. The threat is especially pronounced in the Northeast, where "the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves is expected to increase" due to climate change.

By 2050, the assessment found, the Northeast can expect at least 650 more deaths each year because of extreme heat.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 49063

Reported Deaths: 2732
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11760689
Lake5276246
Elkhart340255
Allen2835133
St. Joseph200169
Cass16429
Hamilton1608101
Hendricks1425100
Johnson1296118
Porter76738
Tippecanoe7359
Clark66844
Madison66764
Bartholomew59145
Vanderburgh5876
LaPorte58326
Howard58058
Kosciusko5624
Marshall5016
Noble48528
LaGrange4779
Jackson4733
Boone45443
Delaware45252
Hancock45236
Shelby43125
Floyd38444
Morgan32731
Monroe30928
Montgomery29720
Grant29626
Clinton2902
Dubois2886
Henry28216
White26610
Decatur25432
Lawrence24825
Dearborn23823
Vigo2388
Warrick22729
Harrison21622
Greene19032
Miami1862
Jennings17712
Putnam1708
DeKalb1634
Scott1628
Daviess14817
Wayne1436
Orange13623
Perry1359
Steuben1302
Franklin1268
Ripley1247
Jasper1232
Wabash1142
Carroll1102
Fayette1037
Newton9910
Gibson982
Whitley975
Starke943
Randolph804
Huntington782
Jefferson762
Wells751
Fulton721
Jay680
Washington671
Pulaski661
Knox640
Clay604
Rush583
Owen501
Adams491
Benton480
Posey450
Sullivan451
Spencer441
Brown421
Blackford392
Crawford320
Fountain322
Tipton311
Switzerland280
Parke240
Martin220
Ohio180
Vermillion140
Warren141
Union130
Pike110
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 60181

Reported Deaths: 2991
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin10879439
Cuyahoga8277383
Hamilton6287206
Lucas2836303
Marion273639
Summit2241207
Pickaway220541
Montgomery220131
Mahoning1861239
Butler167447
Columbiana130960
Stark1156113
Lorain106468
Trumbull99774
Warren89525
Clark7809
Delaware61715
Fairfield60517
Tuscarawas58510
Belmont55522
Medina54332
Lake52920
Licking52012
Miami47531
Portage46159
Wood45251
Ashtabula43744
Clermont4317
Geauga41443
Wayne36552
Richland3515
Allen32841
Mercer2909
Greene2879
Darke25326
Erie25022
Holmes2453
Huron2282
Madison2029
Ottawa16024
Washington14020
Sandusky13814
Crawford1365
Putnam13215
Ross1323
Coshocton1302
Hardin12312
Morrow1181
Auglaize1074
Jefferson922
Union921
Monroe8917
Muskingum891
Hancock831
Preble801
Athens791
Hocking798
Guernsey763
Lawrence740
Williams722
Shelby704
Clinton680
Logan651
Fulton630
Ashland621
Carroll603
Wyandot605
Brown591
Scioto540
Defiance533
Knox531
Fayette480
Highland461
Champaign441
Van Wert420
Perry371
Seneca352
Henry320
Jackson260
Paulding260
Adams241
Pike240
Vinton222
Gallia201
Harrison121
Meigs120
Morgan110
Noble110
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Scattered Clouds
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Angola
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Huntington
Scattered Clouds
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Hi: 90° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 97°
Decatur
Scattered Clouds
88° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 93°
Van Wert
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Hi: 92° Lo: 72°
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AM Storms, Slightly Cooler Friday
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