How to stay healthy when it’s hot? Our medical analyst explains

(CNN) — As temperatures rise, health problems associated with extreme heat arise, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Who is most vulnerable and what steps can they take if they expect a heat wave in your area? Are there specific precautions that seniors and families with young children should take? And how can everyone prepare for hot spells outdoors?

To answer these questions, I spoke with Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst. Wen is an emergency physician and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Previously, she was Baltimore’s health commissioner, where she oversaw the city’s “Code Red” responses to extreme heat.

CNN: What are the health problems associated with extreme heat?

Dr. Leana Wen: The high temperatures that accompany extreme heat can have many serious and harmful health effects. When a person’s body temperature rises as a result of exposure to extreme heat, they can suffer heat stroke, which is a medical emergency. People with heat stroke have a body temperature of just over 39 degrees Celsius. Their bodies are no longer able to cool down effectively and they may feel confused and dizzy. Their heart rate changes and they may faint. These people need immediate cooling and urgent medical attention; in fact, heat stroke can be fatal. Less serious heat-related illnesses include heat exhaustion, which can progress to heat stroke, and heat cramps, which are often associated with exercise in hot climates.

In addition to the direct effects on health, high temperatures can also overload the heart and lungs. The interaction of heat and cardiovascular disease was the direct cause or contributor to one in four heat-related deaths since 1999, according to data from the Environmental protection agency from the United States. High temperatures are also associated with particulate and ozone pollutionwhich also have negative health effects.

High temperatures can put a strain on the heart and lungs. (Credit: FG Trade/E+/Getty Images)

CNN: What are the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

Wen: Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, elevated body temperature, and decreased urination. Heat exhaustion is usually seen in people who work or do physical activities for long periods of time in hot environments. If someone is suspected of having heat exhaustion, they should cool down and get out of the sun and, if possible, take them to a cool, air-conditioned place. Cold compresses and cold drinks will also help. If the person seems confused, faints, or worsens, call 911 in the United States.

Heat stroke is the medical emergency I was referring to before. Immediate medical attention is essential, and bystanders should not hesitate to call 911 when they suspect heat stroke.

CNN: Who is most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and what steps can they take if a heat wave is expected in their area?

Wen: The most vulnerable people are the elderly and the very young; people with significant underlying medical conditions; and people with social situations that make them more likely to experience the harms of extreme weather.

Older people have a lower ability to adapt to changes in body temperature and are also at greater risk of dehydration. The same is true for young children, who have fewer physiological reserves and may not be able to reliably report how they feel. People with chronic conditions are also more susceptible to the additional burden of heat-related illnesses.

These vulnerable people should take extra precautions in hot weather. Limit time outdoors when it’s very hot. Of course, do this if local authorities have issued a heat advisory, but even if they haven’t, know your own limits when the weather starts to warm up.

Try moving physical activities indoors or, if they must be done outside, do them first thing in the morning or at night. If you have to be outside during the heat of the day, try to stay in the shade. Be sure to use sunscreen and drink plenty of fluids. If you start to develop any symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps, lack of energy or tiredness, get out of the sun and immediately get into cool, air-conditioned places.

The other very vulnerable group is people with specific social circumstances. Homeless people, for example, or those living without air conditioning, are at high risk because they may not have the option to seek cooler shelter. They should look to their local and state governments for resources, which can provide cooling centers and temporary shelters during periods of extreme heat. People who work outdoors should also take extra precautions where possible, for example by staying well hydrated and trying to do activities that require greater effort during times of day when it is not as hot.

Make sure children drink plenty of fluids. (Credit: gjohnstonphoto/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

Make sure children drink plenty of fluids. (Credit: gjohnstonphoto/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

CNN: Are there specific precautions for families with young children?

Wen: First, recognize that young children often lack the ability to report their symptoms. Children can also get overexcited and want to play outside, even though they are overheating. And they may forget to drink fluids. Especially if you live in environments where your children are not used to the heat, you need to monitor them closely. Make sure they drink plenty of water and consider setting a time limit of 15 to 20 minutes outside in the heat, at which time they should go inside and cool down.

Second, never leave children or pets in the car. Car interiors heat up quickly, and sadly, more than 38 children die each year in the United States in overheated cars. Even if you are going on a short errand, take the children with you and don’t leave them alone in a closed car.

CNN: How can everyone prepare for the heat?

Wen: In addition to taking steps to prevent heat-related illnesses, everyone should prepare in advance and have contingency plans. For example, if the air conditioning in your house stops working, could you go to a relative’s or neighbor’s house? Also, what other weather emergencies may occur in your area and what will you do if, for example, there is a tornado warning? Lastly, everyone should have a “go bag” of emergency supplies ready to go. Be sure to communicate these plans to your family so everyone knows what to do.

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