Understanding and Surviving a Heat Wave

Its no secret that much of the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world are experiencing extreme heat this summer. Many areas currently dealing with hotter than normal days are ill-prepared to deal with such intense heat. Hundreds of people and billions of sea life have already perished from the heat and summer still has weeks to rage on. This blog will look at understanding what causes a heat wave through heat domes, who are most susceptible to adverse heat reactions, how to recognize signs of heat illnesses, and tips to stay safe when the temperature looms large.

What are Heat Domes?

Record-breaking heat waves have roasted the western United States several times already this summer. Death Valley has even registered a whopping 130° for only the 5th time in recorded history with a good chance of hitting it again within a few days from the first. At the heart of these heat waves are “heat domes,” sprawling zones of strong high pressure, beneath which the air is compressed and heats up. They are a staple of summertime and the source of most heat waves.

But how do these heat domes work?

Hot air masses, born from the blazing summer sun, expand vertically into the atmosphere, creating a dome of high pressure that diverts weather systems around them.

As high-pressure systems become firmly established, subsiding air beneath them heats the atmosphere and dissipates cloud cover. The high summer sun angle combined with those cloudless skies then further heat the ground.

But amid drought conditions, the vicious feedback loop does not end there. The combination of heat and a parched landscape can work to make a heat wave even more extreme. With very little moisture in soils, heat energy that would normally be used on evaporation — a cooling process — instead directly heats the air and the ground.

This also makes it harder for everything to cool off during the nighttime hours making it even more likely to cause extreme health issues. The body needs to be able to cool off overnight lest it makes it easier to overheat during the day. If nighttime temperatures remain high outdoors and inside, human bodies may not be able to adequately cool off, which can cause heavy sweating, nausea, headaches and even death.

Who are most Susceptible to Adverse Heat Reactions?

On average, heat waves kill more people in the U.S. than any other type of extreme weather. While some people can handle excessive heat better than others, some people are inherently vulnerable to extreme heat, according to the CDC.

  • Adults over the age of 65 because they do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. Certain medications could cause them to be further affected by heat. Also, conditions such as dementia may make it harder to discern whether they are having heat related episodes or not as they may not be able to express that they are feeling overheated.
  • Infants and children — especially those left unattended in parked cars.
  • People who work outdoors and who are not able to cool off and drink water.
  • People in low-income situations, especially those without appropriate resources for water.
  • People with chronic medical conditions may be less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature or could be taking medications that make the effects of extreme heat worse.
  • Athletes who exercise or perform in extreme heat during the hottest part of the day.
  • Pets that are left in a car during hot days or that are left outside with limited shade or water.

How to Recognize Signs of Heat Illness

There are five heat-related illnesses to watch out for when someone is exposed to excessive heat, according to the CDC. Look for these signs.

Heat stroke: High body temperature. Hot, red skin. Fast, strong pulse. Headache. Dizziness. Nausea. Confusion. Losing consciousness.

Heat exhaustion: Heavy sweating. Cold, pale and clammy skin. Fast, weak pulse. Nausea or vomiting. Muscle cramps. Tiredness or weakness. Dizziness. Headache. Fainting.

Heat cramps: Heavy sweating during intense exercise. Muscle pain or spasms.

Sunburn: Warm red skin. Blisters on the skin.

Heat rash: Red clusters of small blisters on skin.

Here are some steps to follow if you suspect someone is in serious danger from the heat.

  • Call 911 immediately, especially if the person loses consciousness.
  • If it is a life-threatening emergency, like a heat stroke, move them out of heat ASAP and find somewhere cool and shaded — preferably indoors with air conditioning.
  • If it is not possible to move them into a cool space, try to move them out of the direct heat and start cooling them. You can do so by wetting their clothes with water and removing any unnecessary layers of clothing.
  • If they are conscious, give them water or clear fluids with electrolytes to sip.

Tips on how to Prevent Heat Exhaustion

In many areas currently experiencing extreme heat, air conditioning is not something readily available. There are other ways to try and beat the heat in lieu of traditional air conditioning. These tips are also especially important for those working or playing outdoors for any length of time.

Stay hydrated. In hotter weather, increase your water intake and avoid sugary drinks and alcohol. If your doctor has limited your daily water intake because of heart failure or another diagnosis, stay in communication with them during a heat wave to avoid medical complications. Feeling a headache or thirst? Drink clear fluids ASAP to prevent from becoming dehydrated.

Rest. Do not exercise or do outdoor chores during the hottest hours of the day – typically between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. – and expect longer recovery time after exercise when heat and humidity are elevated.

Find a cool environment. If you do not have an air-conditioned home or car, try:

  • wearing light, breathable clothing
  • avoiding time in direct sunlight
  • spraying yourself with water and sitting in front of a fan
  • taking a cool bath or shower
  • placing a cold pack on your neck, armpit, or head
  • contacting your local health department about local heat-relief shelters

Check on friends, family, and neighbors. In a heat wave, take time to check in with your elderly neighbors, family, and friends to make sure they have the means to stay cool. If you encounter someone having the symptoms of heat stroke, call 911 to get them to an emergency room for evaluation and treatment.

Information used in this blog was obtained from The science of heat domes and how drought and climate change make them worse, Heat wave death concerns rise with historic temperatures. Why heat kills and what to do, Everything you need to know to stay safe during a heat wave, 3 tips for preventing heat stroke.

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