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How heat waves can kill -- and how to stay safe

As a potentially record-breaking heat wave grips the nation thi...

Posted: Jul 19, 2019 7:55 AM

As a potentially record-breaking heat wave grips the nation this weekend, doctors are warning people to find air conditioning and stay cool -- or risk a trip to the emergency room and a hospital ice bath.

Extreme temperatures are the most deadly weather events in the United States, consistently killing more people than hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Over the next few days, more than 85% of the lower 48's population will see temperatures above 90°F (32.2°C), according to CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen, and more than half will see temperatures in excess of 95°F (35°C).

While dehydration is a common concern as it gets warmer, "the most worrisome consequence" of high heat is heat stroke, said Dr. Scott Dresden, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University. Heat stroke can cause confusion, seizures and even death, he said.

The condition, also known as hyperthermia or heat illness, occurs when someone's body temperature rises above 104°F (40°C). Usually, we cool ourselves off by sweating and widening our blood vessels, bringing heat to the surface of our skin and letting it dissipate.

But sweating becomes ineffective as humidity rises above 75%. Our bodies can only let off heat when the outside environment is cooler than our internal body temperature of 98.6°F.

In older adults, medications can also impair heat regulation, Dresden said, and children face additional challenges controlling their body temperature as it gets hotter. That can lead to dangerous, sometimes deadly, consequences.

"The first symptoms that people will start to feel can often be cramping and dizziness," Dresden said. Those could be managed at home by getting out of the heat and drinking lots of fluids, he added.

"Other, more serious symptoms are if somebody actually passes out or collapses from the heat," he said. That requires medical attention, and "if friends or family or co-workers are noticing that somebody's confused, that is also a severe sign of possible heat stroke" that would warrant a trip to the hospital.

Left untreated, extreme heat stroke can trigger a dangerously fast heart rate and cause bodily enzymes to stop functioning. Ultimately, multi-organ system failure and death can occur.

Ice baths and wet sheets

Medical interventions for heat-related injuries aren't always the most pleasant. "We typically use ice baths in our emergency department," Dresden said. "We'll do cold water immersion."

That can rapidly cool someone's body temperature, but patients are sometimes treated before they even arrive at the hospital. "Our Chicago fire department will often pack a patient's neck, armpits and groin in ice packs" to target major blood vessels, Dresden said.

Wet sheets and large fans are also used in the hospital to cool patients, especially if ice baths aren't available. But as an emergency room doctor, Dresden emphasized that preventing heat stroke is almost always easier than treating it.

"Especially for young and healthy people, if you're going to be exercising, do it when it's cooler or do it in an air-conditioned gym when it's really hot outside," he said. "For everyone else -- for everyone really -- wear lighter clothing and make sure that you're drinking lots of fluids."

People can gauge how well they're hydrated by looking at their urine. Too dark, Dresden said, and you probably need more water. That can prevent dehydration, which can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness and severe electrolyte abnormalities, he added.

But above all, "try to get out of the heat whenever you can," Dresden said. Many cities, including Chicago and New York, have opened cooling centers that are free to access.

Lives at risk as the climate warms

Experts say that heat waves like this one are only made worse by the ongoing impact of climate crisis. According to last year's National Climate Assessment, the number of hot days in the US is increasing and we can expect to see many more extreme heat days in the future.

Heat waves have also increased in frequency, rising from an average of two per year to six per year in the last five decades. The threat is especially pronounced in the Northeast, where "the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves is expected to increase" due to climate change.

By 2050, the assessment found, the Northeast can expect at least 650 more deaths each year because of extreme heat.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 295001

Reported Deaths: 3535
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin624331107
Ramsey26238493
Anoka20851224
Dakota20527189
Stearns13245106
Washington13220111
St. Louis8141108
Scott798154
Wright720338
Olmsted639934
Sherburne552241
Clay473356
Carver443213
Blue Earth395813
Rice393335
Kandiyohi378719
Crow Wing344731
Nobles301429
Chisago29799
Otter Tail288820
Benton285847
Winona266629
Mower248523
Douglas242235
Polk238223
Morrison224027
Lyon206711
Beltrami202517
McLeod198511
Becker194015
Goodhue190628
Steele18336
Itasca179123
Isanti179016
Todd173912
Carlton170414
Nicollet154925
Freeborn14795
Mille Lacs145131
Le Sueur141111
Waseca135911
Cass133310
Brown131215
Pine12788
Meeker11638
Roseau11074
Hubbard107523
Martin105520
Wabasha9941
Redwood87518
Dodge8230
Chippewa8157
Watonwan8104
Cottonwood7942
Renville77322
Sibley7564
Wadena7476
Aitkin71729
Rock7149
Pipestone69618
Houston6534
Fillmore6510
Yellow Medicine61511
Pennington6137
Murray5623
Kanabec55713
Swift5448
Faribault5251
Pope5071
Clearwater4817
Stevens4813
Jackson4581
Marshall4508
Lake3916
Unassigned38659
Koochiching3675
Wilkin3605
Lac qui Parle3513
Lincoln3331
Norman3307
Big Stone2962
Mahnomen2834
Grant2566
Red Lake2033
Kittson2027
Traverse1391
Lake of the Woods941
Cook630

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 223783

Reported Deaths: 2330
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk33166333
Linn13991164
Scott1100384
Black Hawk10795134
Woodbury10255124
Johnson940036
Dubuque913491
Story674921
Dallas629057
Pottawattamie617069
Sioux366725
Webster357033
Cerro Gordo349644
Marshall346345
Clinton322840
Buena Vista302214
Muscatine282668
Des Moines282419
Warren276411
Plymouth270641
Wapello251571
Jones228413
Jasper214643
Marion202919
Lee199416
Carroll196422
Bremer192612
Henry18107
Crawford174115
Benton167418
Tama153340
Jackson143013
Delaware141021
Washington138214
Dickinson135810
Boone134811
Mahaska126127
Wright12226
Buchanan115410
Clay11504
Hardin114010
Page11144
Hamilton11009
Clayton10875
Harrison106629
Cedar106213
Calhoun10607
Kossuth10426
Floyd103916
Mills10297
Fayette102210
Lyon10188
Butler9916
Poweshiek98213
Winneshiek95812
Iowa93012
Winnebago91323
Hancock8547
Louisa84916
Grundy84611
Chickasaw8424
Sac8407
Cherokee8214
Cass80222
Allamakee79011
Appanoose77910
Mitchell7794
Humboldt7635
Shelby76111
Union7576
Emmet74924
Guthrie74115
Franklin73421
Jefferson7062
Madison6764
Palo Alto6474
Unassigned6470
Keokuk5777
Pocahontas5572
Howard5489
Greene5170
Osceola5171
Ida48113
Clarke4774
Taylor4603
Davis4548
Montgomery45011
Monroe43912
Adair4298
Monona4272
Fremont3553
Van Buren3545
Worth3540
Lucas3226
Decatur3160
Audubon2952
Wayne2957
Ringgold2082
Adams1652
Rochester
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