Mind and Body

Heat waves: What you need to know

June 28, 2013: Cheng Jia, of china, poses by a digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Vistitor Center in Death Vally National Park Friday in Furnace Creek, Calif.

June 28, 2013: Cheng Jia, of china, poses by a digital thermometer at the Furnace Creek Vistitor Center in Death Vally National Park Friday in Furnace Creek, Calif.  (AP)

With temperatures skyrocketing in the West over the weekend, people are wondering what they need to know to stay safe.

The first thing we all need to know is that extreme heat is dangerous. In fact, heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S., more than tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes combined, claiming the lives of close to 1,000 every year.

Young children left in cars are particularly susceptible to heat, since temperatures inside a closed car can increase 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. More than 500 children have died in hot cars over the past fifteen years, the majority less than 2 years old, 15 of them in 2013 alone. Infants don’t have as much body fat as adults, and their core body temperatures can increase rapidly.

As with all extreme weather, thoughtful behavior and careful preparation are essential. Staying hydrated and keeping cool saves lives.

What to look out for:

  • Impaired sweating occurs from excess heat combined with humidity and is a big risk. Sweating is the body’s sprinkler system. It cools down our skin and is essential to the body’s ability able to cool itself in the heat.
  • Dehydration.  This is especially problematic in patients with underlying heart conditions or who are taking diuretic medication.
  • Heat cramps, especially in the legs, occur because of the loss of salts in the heat.
  • Heat fainting occurs because of a sudden drop in blood pressure from exercising too much in the heat.
  • Fatigue, confusion, headache, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath are signs of heat exhaustion.
  • Worsening confusion, lethargy, unconsciousness, and rising temperature to 105 degrees are signs of life-threatening heat stroke. If you encounter someone with any of these symptoms, call 911, and while waiting, put them in the shade, and try to immerse them in water. Paramedics will administer intravenous fluids.
  • Affects of extreme heat are worse in cities, where buildings trap in pollutants which magnify the effects.

How to protect yourself:

  • Replace water and electrolytes – even more than you think you may need.
  • Wear light clothing
  • Stay out of direct sunlight and utilize shade and air conditioning.
  • Limit outdoor exercise.
  • Watch out for the elderly – they are more susceptible to sudden changes in temperature.
  • Increase rest and take more naps.
  • Save household chores for another day!
  • Keep away from coffee and alcohol, which are notorious diuretics.

In addition to liquids, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables that are high in water content, including watermelon, grapefruit, cantaloupe, oranges, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce and broccoli. Greek yogurt is also loaded with liquid, and oatmeal is good to have because it absorbs the water and milk you add to it.

Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008. His upcoming book concerns a mysterious viral outbreak.