Heat waves and the risks they present

At this point in the summer, sunburn might be among the least of our concerns. A dangerous heat wave has blanketed roughly two-thirds of the nation, and as I write this, final reports of the toll of these oppressively high temperatures have yet to come in.

What is known is that many cities across the Midwest and Northeast will likely surpass local heat records and that the “heat dome” has spread from the middle part of the country to the Great Lakes and the East Coast.

We also know that heat waves such as this are on the rise and that this is not likely to be the last of it. Such conditions are estimated to likely be longer, hotter and more frequent in the future. The warnings and advice administered for this current wave bear repeating and constant reminders.

Millions of people will find different ways to cope when confronted with such dangerously high temperatures. The problem is that many people see heat as more of an annoyance than a threat.


Not everyone will heed the often-repeated advice: In times like these, it is critical to stay cool, drink plenty of fluids (note that drinking alcohol can affect your body’s ability to regulate your temperature), check on relatives and neighbors, seek out air-conditioned rooms and avoid the sun — especially during the hottest part of the day.

We all need to look out for each other. Yes, sunscreen is important. Sunburn affects the body’s ability to cool itself, so protect yourself outdoors with frequently applied sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. You also should wear loose-fitting lightweight clothing to allow your body to cool properly. You should never leave anyone in a parked car during a heat spell. This is a common cause of heat-related deaths in children. According to the Mayo Clinic, when parked in the sun, the temperature inside a car can rise 20 degrees in just 10 minutes.

It’s not just seniors, small children, people with disabilities and illness and those who actively participate in outdoor activities who are at risk. Be ever mindful that everybody is vulnerable. Since 1986, the first year that the National Weather Service reported data on heat-related deaths, more people in the United States have died from heat than from any other weather-related disaster. It is generally agreed that heat’s victim count would be much higher if the death certificates of deceased people found with a fatal body temperature or in a hot room showed heat as their cause of death.

The human body is not wired to tolerate excessive heat. The biological and chemical processes that keep us alive are best carried out at a core temperature of 96.8 F to 98.6 F. With repeated exposure to high temperatures, the body can become more efficient at dealing with excess heat, but a person can only adjust so much.


It is now more important than ever to know the differences between heat exhaustion and heatstroke, two very serious — but different — heat-related illnesses. Heat exhaustion is a condition marked by weakness, nausea, dizziness and profuse sweating that results from physical exertion on a hot day. If those symptoms progress, they can lead to heatstroke, the onset of which begins when a person’s core temperature rises above 104 F. This causes complications to the central nervous system. A person’s organs can then start to fail, a state of medical emergency. Left untreated, heatstroke can quickly damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles.

The damage worsens the longer treatment is delayed, increasing the risk of serious complications or death. If you think a person may be experiencing heatstroke, seek immediate medical help and take swift action to cool the overheated person while waiting for emergency treatment.

During the long hot summer ahead, it is critical to pay attention to what your body is telling you, to listen to the signals that can start with heat cramps. Both heat exhaustion and heatstroke are predictable and preventable conditions.

Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management said in a statement during the most recent heat wave: “During times like these, we all need to look out for each other. Be a buddy and check on your family, friends and neighbors who are at risk and help them get to a cooling center or another cool place — even if for a few hours.”


While we all share the risks, the elderly are considered the most vulnerable to heat, along with children and pregnant women. Children have not fully developed the ability to regulate heat, and pregnant women can struggle due to the demands of their growing fetus. People with chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity can have trouble dissipating heat. Some medications can affect the body’s ability to stay hydrated and respond to heat. If you are on any medications, check with your doctor as whether they may cause risks during hot weather. As pointed out by the Mayo Clinic, people who are on medications for high blood pressure or heart disease need to be extra careful in the heat because those drugs can cause the body to have an outsized reaction to hot weather.

Make no mistake, heat waves can be deadly. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heatstroke, breathing issues, heart attacks, asthma attacks and kidney problems are all big concerns for people when environmental temperatures increase. It is a risk no one should ignore.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.