One of the reasons heat can be so dangerous is because people don’t take the risk seriously.
“Heat is a familiar exposure for a lot of people, and most people feel like it’s a manageable exposure,” said Jeremy Hess, an emergency room doctor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. “But people should also be mindful of when they and people they care for might become at risk.”
The human body can usually keep itself cool with self-regulating mechanisms, such as sweating, he explained. But if the temperature gets too hot, your body may struggle to regulate itself.
“We maintain our body temperatures within a pretty narrow range,” Hess said. “When people can’t either perceive the temperature as normal or don’t have control over their temperature, they can’t maintain their heat balance.”
The result could be heat exhaustion, which can result in fatigue, excessive sweating, dizziness or disorientation, nausea, vomiting, fainting, or a headache. If you start to experience these symptoms, health experts recommend that you slow down or stop what you’re doing and move to a shady, or, more ideally, an air-conditioned space. Putting your feet in cold water, wearing light, breathable clothing, and sitting in front of a fan while covering your skin with water can also help cool the body down.
But if these symptoms aren’t addressed, you can quickly go from bad to worse. That’s when heat exhaustion progresses to what’s called heatstroke, which can cause altered mental status, dry skin, a rapid heart rate and breathing, seizures, and even death.
“Once you tip over the threshold and you’re no longer able to maintain your temperature within that range, everything can quickly go downhill physiologically,” Hess said.
Anyone who spends a lot of time in the heat, especially doing physical activity, can get sick. But people who work outdoors, athletes, pregnant people, young children, older adults, people who experience mental health issues, and those who are unhoused are at increased risk.
Checking in on your neighbors to see that they are hydrated, staying cool at home, or finding a shelter with air conditioning could mean the difference between life and death, Hess said.
As summers get hotter, Hess emphasized the importance of communities addressing the growing health risk.
“Part of protecting people from heat is recognizing these differences and providing extra assistance,” Hess said. “This ensures that communities of particular risk have opportunities to stay cool.”