During a heat wave over one week in early June, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 95 heat-related emergency department visits across the state.
Sometimes those heat-related emergencies can be fatal. According to data provided by the department, 43 people died in North Carolina due to exposure to excessive natural heat between 2009 and 2013.
Experts say these deaths can nearly always be averted by taking simple precautions.
Summer heat waves are becoming more frequent and increasingly intense. They put young and old, the physically active and the the sedentary at risk of a heat-related illness and death.
Prevention starts with preparation. While being properly hydrated is always important, it can be lifesaving in summer heat. The bigger you are, the more time you spend outdoors and the more intensely you exercise, the more you should drink.
Young athletes at risk
Heat illness is a leading cause of death and disability among high school athletes, with the highest rate among football players, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Preseason football practice typically starts during the hottest, most humid summer days, when players are least physically fit and most prone to collapse. Although the National Athletic Trainers’ Association has guidelines on the duration and intensity of summer practices and the gear to be used, coaches often neglect to follow them.
If the player’s core temperature (the most accurate measurement is rectal) rises to 104 degrees or higher, it’s a medical emergency. A body temperature of 105 degrees for more than 30 minutes can be fatal, noted Douglas Casa, the director of athletic training at the University of Connecticut.
Even if a heat-exhausted player recovers quickly, he should not return to vigorous activity that day.
“A player may say, ‘I feel better now,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to go back in the game,” said Dr. Christopher B. Colwell, director of emergency medicine at Denver Health Medical Center.
“The way someone feels doesn’t necessarily reflect the body’s core temperature, which could still be seriously elevated.”
Heat on the job
People who work in hot settings can also face heat illness. Farm workers have a substantially higher risk for heat-related deaths than other workers. Others at risk include those who work outdoors (road crews and construction workers, for example), firefighters and workers in bakeries, boiler rooms, factories and mines.
Workers at greatest risk include people ages 65 and older, and those who are overweight or have heart disease or high blood pressure or take medications like beta blockers that reduce sweating and raise heat sensitivity.
The CDC recommends that workers in hot settings do the following:
Check on the elderly
Special attention to older adults, the physically handicapped and people with chronic physical or mental illness is critical when the air temperature soars. Colwell urges relatives, friends or neighbors to check in with such people daily.
But if their home is cool, they are best off staying indoors on hot days and avoiding exertion.