The terms "climate change" and "global warming" have been in use for decades now — since the 1980s — but we are only now living in a world where almost everyone can observe the effects first hand, sometimes with devastating consequences.
NASA warns that the Earth continues to warm at an alarming rate, and that recent global temperatures have been the hottest in over 2,000 years. The World Health Organization has alerted the public that 175 million additional people are now exposed to heatwaves each year, and that this can lead to tens of thousands of needless deaths on an annual basis.
The bad news? Despite recent strides, climate change isn't going anywhere, and it will continue to impact individuals just like you and me in increasingly obvious ways. The good news? We can sometimes take proactive steps to stay safe. Nope, we won't be discussing single-use plastic straws or fossil fuels here. We will, however, talk about something that can benefit you and your loved ones right away if you're stuck in a heatwave — how to prevent heat-related injuries, and what to do if you recognize the signs of a heat injury in yourself or someone else.
What Are Heat-Related Injuries?
Heat-related injuries can simply be defined as adverse effects that the human body experiences when external temperatures are too hot for the body's thermoregulatory systems to manage. They can have wide-ranging effects that start with mild discomfort and end in death at the most extreme end. All heat injuries boil down to hyperthermia — when your body temperature gets too hot — and dehydration. Let's take a look at the spectrum:
- Heat rash. Small and blister-like lesions form on the areas of the body that are most exposed to sweating and friction, including the thighs, chest, neck, and armpits. This is a nuisance, and the lesions could become infected, but it's temporary and generally harmless.
- Sunburn. This is caused by direct sun exposed without protection; you don't even have to be in the sun for that long. As your skin blisters, you will lose fluids, and people whose sunburns come with symptoms like fevers, chills, clammy skin, and infection will need urgent medical care.
- Heat cramps. These cause you to feel muscle cramps and spasms following extreme heat exposure, and are caused by acute dehydration and electrolyte loss.
- Heat exhaustion. This more serious heat-related illness occurs when your body overheats, resulting in symptoms that include low blood pressure, dizziness, nausea, extreme sweating, feeling weak and like you may faint, skin that's cold and clammy to the touch, and a rapid but weak pulse. Unless treated, it can quickly progress to an even more dangerous heat injury — heat stroke.
- Heat stroke. People who have developed heat stroke can no longer regulate their own body temperature, are often severely dehydrated, and have lost vital electrolytes. Symptoms include mental confusion, hot and dry skin along with profuse sweating, a fever, nausea, headache, a rapid and strong pulse, loss of consciousness, and in the most extreme cases, even death.
Who Is Most at Risk for Heat-Related Injuries?
While anyone who spends prolonged periods of time in extreme heat can develop heat injury, certain people are more vulnerable. These include very young people and older people, those with preexisting medical conditions, and those taking certain medications.
What Can You Do to Prevent Heat-Related Injuries?
Simple steps you can take to prevent heat-related injuries during a heatwave — defined, by the way, as temperature of or above 32.2°C (90.0°F) for three days or longer — center on keeping yourself cool, with a focus on your living space. The World Health Organization advises that very young children and older adults are a priority. Aim to keep their living spaces under 32 °C during the day and under 24 °C at night.
You can do this in several ways, even if you do not have access to air conditioning:
- Open the windows at night, when the air is cool, and especially if there is a nice breeze.
- Use wet towels or wet clothes to lower vulnerable individuals' body temperature.
- Close blinds or curtains during the day to prevent the space from heating up more than it would otherwise. Hang extra fabrics, whatever you have on hand, to keep the light and heat out, even if you do not have curtains or blinds.
- Avoid adding extra heat to your home by using heat-generating appliances such as ovens where possible.
- Keep in mind that electric fans do make you feel cooler, but they do not lower the indoor temperature. Stay hydrated!
- Take cold showers or baths.
- Wear light clothes made of natural fabrics. Avoid synthetic fibers.
- Avoid being physically active during the hottest part of the day, and do not go out in the sun unless you absolutely have to.
Other steps you can take to prevent heat injury include eating light meals, such as salads with veggies rich in water. Keep hydrated, but don't just drink water — you will quickly lose electrolytes as you sweat, and will have to add them back in to stay healthy. These include sodium (salt), potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate. Energy drinks and sports drinks often replenish electrolytes, but check their ingredient lists.
What Do You Do If You Suspect You Have a Heat-Related Injury? What Can You Do for Someone Else?
In all cases, someone with heat exhaustion should:
- Leave or be removed from the exceptionally hot area or space.
- Take off unnecessary clothing.
- Be offered water — but if the symptoms are severe, too much at once can be detrimental, especially because the person may lose consciousness.
- Cool the body with wet cloths or ice.
If you suspect heat stroke, based on high fever, confusion, fainting, and other serious symptoms, have someone call 911 (or whatever the emergency response number is where you live), while you stay with the person, moving them to a cool and shady area. Avoid hot surfaces such as asphalt pavements. Cool the person down by any means available, such as wet clothes, pouring water on them, or applying ice packs. Use a fan (even a flat surface like a newspaper can help) to get cooler air circulating around the person.
It can be hard to tell the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the more serious heat injury, but someone who is at risk of losing consciousness, or already has, must not be given oral fluids. If in doubt, ask the dispatcher on the other end of the line for further instructions.
With the right steps, heat-related injuries can be prevented — saving lives. In this ever-heating world, it's a drill we will all need to become familiar with.