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How to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related emergencies


By Katia Hetter, CNN

(CNN) — It’s only June, and Americans across parts of the US South and West have already experienced record heat waves. Extreme heat weather events are expected to affect more than 60 million people across the US this summer.

This comes as last summer was officially deemed the hottest recorded. The rate of emergency department visits related to extreme heat increased significantly in 2023 compared to the previous five years, with nearly 120,000 visits due to heat-related issues, according to a recent study published in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Reports.

With summer temperatures on the rise, what should people know about the dangerous condition of heat stroke? What are the symptoms, and how can others recognize if someone needs help? What are other types of illnesses associated with extreme heat? Especially those most susceptible to the ill effects of high temperatures?

To find out how to handle the heat, I spoke with CNN wellness analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Dr. Wen is an emergency physician and clinical associate professor at the George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.

CNN: What should people know about heat stroke? What is it, and what are its symptoms?

Dr. Leana Wen: Heat stroke is a medical emergency. It must be treated immediately because it can quickly become fatal.

The body normally has the capacity to control and regulate its temperature. Heat stroke occurs when this mechanism is overwhelmed. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, and the person can’t cool down.

Your internal temperature can rise rapidly to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in 10 to 15 minutes. If that happens, a person may become confused and dizzy, and feel faint. They could have slurred speech and lose consciousness. They may even start to have seizures and abnormal heart rates.

If someone around you is having these symptoms, they need to go to the hospital right away. Bystanders should not hesitate to call 911.

CNN: Is there anything else bystanders can do to help that person while help is on the way?

Wen: Move the person into a shaded, cool area. Place cold, wet cloths or ice packs on the neck, armpits and groin, and soak clothing with cold water. Make sure to stay with that person until emergency service workers arrive.

CNN: Are there less severe forms of heat-related illnesses?

Wen: Yes. Before someone reaches the point of having heat stroke, they may have heat exhaustion. Symptoms include nausea, tiredness, dizziness, headache, heavy sweating and cool, clammy skin.

It’s crucial to move to a cool place right away. Loosen your clothes and take a cool bath if possible; if not, put wet cloths on your body. Watch for worsening symptoms, such as feeling faint and throwing up, and seek help if these occur or if you are no better in an hour.

People engaging in physical activity also may have heat cramps, where they have painful muscle spasms in hot weather. They should stop exercising and drink water or an electrolyte solution.

CNN: Are there other types of illnesses associated with extreme heat?

Wen: Yes. There are actually two major effects of extreme heat. The first is what we’ve spoken about, which is the high temperatures directly impacting the body and causing it to overheat.

The second is caused by high temperatures exacerbating an underlying medical condition. Extreme heat puts strain on organs, including the heart, lungs and kidneys. Researchers estimate that the interaction between heat and cardiovascular disease was either a direct or contributory cause of 1 in 4 heat-related deaths. And heat extremes can worsen health risks from chronic conditions, including diabetes and some mental health diagnoses.

CNN: Who are the most susceptible to ill effects of high temperatures?

Wen: Extreme heat can affect everyone, but there are three groups of people who are the most susceptible to its ill effects.

The first are the very young and the elderly. Both groups have less physiological reserve and may have more problems regulating their body temperatures. Young children also may not be able to report how they are feeling. Both groups are also at higher risk of dehydration.

The second group includes those people with chronic medical conditions. Certain medications may interfere with the body’s ability to adapt to changes in temperature. Extreme heat puts pressure on organ systems, thereby exacerbating underlying conditions.

The third category encompasses those people who have occupational exposure or socioeconomic constraints that increase their exposure to heat. This category includes people who must work outdoors and those experiencing homelessness or otherwise do not have access to cool spaces in their residence.

CNN: What steps should people in these vulnerable groups take if high temperatures are forecasted?

Wen: Everyone should take additional precautions when heat advisories are issued. Even before temperatures reach the point of triggering these advisories, those who are elderly, very young and who have underlying medical conditions should try to limit their time outdoors during the hottest times of day. Try to exercise early in the mornings or in evenings. If you have to be out during the day, find shade when possible. Make sure to stay hydrated.

Those around vulnerable individuals can help them to stay safe by monitoring the amount of time they are spending outdoors when it’s hot outside and watching for any concerning symptoms. And never, ever leave children, older adults or pets unattended in a car; the temperature inside the car heats up extremely rapidly and can be fatal.

People who have jobs where they must work outdoors should use caution. They should keep well-hydrated, use good sun protection, try to seek shade and cool off in air-conditioned spaces when they are not working if possible. Those experiencing homelessness or who otherwise do not have access to air-conditioned spaces should seek out local resources such as cooling centers and temporary shelters during heat waves.

Extreme weather events are a time when we all need to watch out for people around us. Keep a close eye on children and be sure to check up on elderly neighbors and others in our communities who may need assistance.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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