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Death Wave: Protecting Yourself Against the Summer Heat

It is an established statistical fact – heat waves kill more people in the United States each year [1]than tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and all other natural disasters combined. Those other types of disasters have a public relations advantage because they are sudden, dramatic events that are usually accompanied by copious video footage. Heat waves kill slowly and gradually, sneaking up on people when they aren’t paying attention, and as a result, dozens will die before the media even notices that something is going on.

This summer has been one of the hottest in recent memory [2]. All across the United States, people have been baked, steamed, boiled, and roasted in heat waves that have seen temperatures surpass the 100 degree mark for days or even weeks at a time. As always happens, these heat waves have brought sickness and death to scores of people. Unfortunately, most people simply aren’t prepared for the danger associated with extreme heat and humidity, which is what makes these heat waves such sneaky killers.

As overwhelming as heat can be, there is no reason why it should be causing so many deaths and so much heat-related illness. There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself against the ravages of heat waves. More than anything else, it is just a matter of knowing what should be done and what should not be done when the temperatures suddenly skyrocket.

The Importance of Hydration

The necessity of drinking lots of fluids when temperatures are high may seem so obvious that it hardly deserves mention. But when summertime conditions become extreme, dehydration can come on fast and without warning, even when people think they are getting plenty to drink. The other problem is that many people are drinking the wrong things and not getting any benefit from it as a result.

Water is by far the best liquid for hydration. Water is truly the foundation of all life, and it is the substance our bodies crave the most. With almost anything else we consume, it is possible to overdo it, but there is almost no such thing as too much water. The normal recommendation is that we should drink 64 ounces of water each day, but when the temperatures are high, we should increase this amount by at least 50%.

Many people crave sodas when they are thirsty and have been sweating a lot. However, the caffeine and the sugar in these drinks actually act as diuretics, [3] causing you to ultimately lose more moisture than you gain from consuming them. While sports drinks that contain electrolytes can work as a substitute to some extent, it cannot be stressed enough that what your body needs when temperatures are high is water. Drinking water early, often, and before you actually feel thirsty is the way to maintain proper hydration during a heat wave.

Escaping the Heat

Of course if you have air conditioning, the main place you want to be during a heat wave is at home. But if you are not so fortunate, then heat waves could be an excellent time to take in some culture. Movie theaters, museums, libraries, concert halls, and indoor sporting venues are some nice air-conditioned locations to visit – although they could be a bit crowded if others have the same idea as you. Outdoor green spaces like parks that have shade trees are not air-conditioned, but they are likely to be a lot cooler than stuffy indoor spaces. Swimming pools and beaches, however, are overrated for finding relief from the heat because they are usually badly overcrowded and can leave you completely exposed to the sun.

One of the very best things anyone can do to escape the heat is to leave cities and get out into the countryside, perhaps to do some camping. The heat island effect [4] is created by vast concrete and asphalt expanses in the urban environment that absorb heat like a sponge, increasing air temperatures during the day and emitting heat during the night to sabotage any after-dark cool down. Cities are built for the convenience of cars, not people, and they can turn into blast furnaces when the heat of summer arrives.

Staying Cool in Your Home

If you don’t have an air conditioner, it is a lot tougher to keep your house or apartment cool. But you can still make things more comfortable for yourself in a number of ways. Cooking can heat up a living space quickly, so you should prepare cold dishes or things that can be cooked speedily on the stovetop or in the microwave. Fans can help keep you cool, but only up to the point where the air temperature stays far enough below the normal human body temperature to make a difference. When the air gets too warm, having it blow against your body will make you hotter not cooler.  When the temperature rises above 95 degrees, fans should be set up to blow the air out of windows instead of sucking it inward. And speaking of windows, they should always be covered with shades to keep the sun from penetrating and amplifying indoor temperatures even more.

[5]Showers and baths actually cool the body better than air conditioning, and frequent time in or beneath the water will definitely help to moderate body temperature significantly. Getting enough sleep at night when it is unseasonably hot can be especially difficult, but draping wet towels across your body can make you feel a lot more comfortable.

Going Outside

As wonderful as it might be to stay inside holed up in front of the air conditioner, it is inevitable that everyone will have to leave their homes and go outside to fulfill their daily responsibilities. People who have outdoor jobs in particular may truly have no escape, and of course there are many serious amateur athletes who are not willing to skip their workouts no matter what. For those who must be outdoors in the heat [6], there are two basic principles that should always be followed: carry water along and drink plenty of it, and take as many breaks as possible so you can get out of the sun frequently. Also, if you have any choice about when you are outside, you should try to go out either early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the most extreme heat of the day.

Don’t Be a Fool, Keep Yourself Cool

Unfortunately, as we have already established, extreme heat can be very sneaky, and dehydration and heat illness can strike very suddenly. Elderly people and young children [7] are especially vulnerable, and these groups should be monitored closely by their caregivers. Vigilance is really the most important factor here – if you should suddenly begin feeling ill, overheated, or if you notice a change in your sweating patterns, you should get to a cool place and get into or under cool water immediately. If symptoms get worse, heat exhaustion could be turning into heat stroke, and it is time to call 911 because heat stroke is what kills so many people in the heat each year.

Heat is a subtle, slow, and stealthy killer. But more than anything, heat is a predator that relies on overconfidence, inattention, and ignorance to help it claim its victims. When the potentially deadly heat waves of summer come, you need to take care of yourself and your family, check in on your neighbors frequently, and remember to make sure your pets have plenty of water and are not left directly exposed to the heat. In short, if you treat the heat with the respect it deserves, you can avoid the pitfalls that have left so many others vulnerable to the summertime waves of death.