After experiencing what was for Louisiana a relatively mild spring and early summer, Louisiana’s hot and humid days returned with a vengeance in July. Daily temperatures soared into the mid-90s, and combined with high humidity, pushed the heat index to over 105 degrees just about every day this month.
It’s not just uncomfortable as this type of extreme heat kills. In fact, over 7,000 people died from heat-related causes from 1999-2009. Most of these deaths (around 70 percent) occur at home and almost all of those homes lacked a functioning air conditioning
Who is most at-risk?
Yearly, high temperatures kill over 600 people a year, more than those who die from lightning strikes, floods and tornadoes. Between 1999 and 2003, seven percent of deaths were in children less than 15 years old, 53 percent were in adults between 15 and 64, and 40 percent were people older than age 65.
Young children and older people are at higher risk because of an inability to control body heat. Any severe underlying disease, especially diabetes, also increases the risk of heat-related problems.
Be on the lookout for these symptoms
The signs and symptoms of heat-related disease extend from heat exhaustion to heat stroke. In heat exhaustion, the body is desperately trying to cool down. The person will be sweating profusely and have a rapid, but weak, pulse. They may experience light-headedness, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps and will feel cool and clammy. Body temperature remains normal until the patient’s system fails to keep pace.
During heat exhaustion, the patient is usually coherent. Rapid and effective cooling and fluid replacement are imperative to prevent progression to heat stroke.
During heat stroke, the body’s capacity to remain cool fails entirely. The core body temperature may soar up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The skin turns red, hot and dry and the pulse is rapid and pounding. The person stops sweating and they experience headaches before they become confused and pass out.
People in heat stroke will progress to multi-organ failure and die unless they receive medical attention (including aggressive fluid replacement and cooling). Call 911 immediately if heat stroke is suspected.
Stay safe from the heat
Prevention is, of course, the best medicine. People should avoid physical activity during the heat of the day if at all possible, especially in the South where high humidity prevents effective sweating.
Adequate fluids (without alcohol or caffeine), plus light, loose clothing should be encouraged.
Air conditioning must be maintained in working order and “cooling centers” can be established in public areas.
Since the elderly pay a disproportionate price in mortality, everyone should check on their elderly friends, relatives or neighbors. Never leave children (or pets) in an unattended vehicle since temperatures become rapidly fatal. Young infants should not be exposed to extreme heat since they cannot control their body temperature effectively.
In short, enjoy the long, lazy days of summer, but don’t let the heat get the best of you. Take care of yourself and remain attentive to those around you. If you must work outdoors, drink plenty of fluids and watch for the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion. For suspected heat stroke, call 911 immediately. Heat can and does kill. Don’t be a victim.