07/04/2013 09:09 EDT | Updated 09/03/2013 05:12 EDT

How to Stay Safe in Extreme Heat


America's worst heat wave to date happened long before anyone ever thought of global warming. In July of 1936 almost 1,000 Americans perished from heat exposure. That number pales by comparison to what happened in Europe in August 2003 when more than 40,000 people died (some estimates are as high as 70,000), mainly in France where the hottest temperatures since the 16th century were recorded.

Then deadly heat episodes began to occur with greater frequency. In July 2006 over 220 people died in the United States and Canada when temperatures rose up to 130º F (54º C). In June 2010 Russia experienced its hottest summer in over a millennium - thousands succumbed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 7,000 Americans have died from extreme heat exposure just over the last decade, with numbers accelerating since 2006. The current wave that has taken hold of the western parts of the U.S. shows all the signs that these trends will continue.

Heat-related deaths and illness are preventable with access to the right resources. One of the reasons why the Europeans experienced such a dramatic impact was that fewer households were equipped with air-conditioning. But children, the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, low-income families, outdoor workers and athletes are at a higher risk here as well, according to the CDC.

There can be several factors at play when heat stress or a heat stroke occur. When in addition to hot temperatures air humidity is high, sweat on the skin cannot evaporate as quickly as it would in dry heat, making it harder for the body to cool off. Other contributing components can be age, obesity, heart disease, poor blood circulation, dehydration, alcohol and some medications.

Heat stroke symptoms can include elevated body temperature (104º F / 40º C or higher), lack of sweating, nausea, vomiting, flushed skin, difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, muscle cramps, headache and confusion.

If you or a person near you experience heat stress or the possibility of a heat stroke, call your emergency service. In the meantime, move yourself or the one you're helping to a shady or air-conditioned place and, if necessary, remove excess clothing. If available, use ice or cold water to lower the body temperature. Misting cold water on the skin may be better than immersing in a pool or bathtub, both for safety reasons and also to mimic the natural cooling process more closely. Rehydrate as quickly as possible.

The best protection against heat stress, of course, is prevention. In hot weather, always wear light clothing, stay in cool places as much as you can and drink lots of water. Don't engage in strenuous activities or work outdoors. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which have diuretic effects. Take cool showers or baths. Never leave children, seniors, or pets for that matter, in a vehicle without opening the windows. When you travel, check the weather forecast for your destination and prepare accordingly.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, R.D.

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