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When the Sun Goes Up, Don’t Let Your Guard Down
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Juliet Irby
July 2, 2007

As the weather turns warmer, our thoughts begin to turn to swimming pools, backyard barbeques and other outdoor pleasures. But in our rush to enjoy as much summer fun as we can, we sometimes overlook the many safety hazards lurking outdoors, especially the one that seems most obvious -- excessive heat.

Unlike other weather threats such as hurricanes and floods, heat typically is not viewed as a natural disaster. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, excessive heat exposure killed more Americans (8,015) from 1979 through 2003 than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. And if recent trends continue, the incidence of heat-related deaths may grow worse in the years ahead -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says eight of the past ten summers in the United States have been warmer than average.

Although farmers and other rural workers who toil outdoors would seem to be at greatest risk, most heat-related deaths occur in cities. The 1995 Chicago heat wave, which led to the deaths of approximately 600 people over a five-day period, proved to be one of the worst weather-related disasters in U.S. history.

Residents of inner-city areas are at elevated risk because of the large number of buildings, which absorb and retain heat. Poor air flow and lack of air conditioning also contribute to a high number of heat emergencies.

The very young and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the heat. People with chronic health issues are also at greater risk and need to take special care to stay healthy in the heat.

Preventing Heat-Related Illness

There are several precautions you can take to avoid heat-related injury and illness.

  • Dress for the heat. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing (light colors reflect away some of the sun's energy) and use a hat or an umbrella.
  • Carry water or juice with you and drink frequently, even if you do not feel thirsty. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which dehydrate the body.
  • Eat small meals and eat more often. Avoid foods that are high in protein, which increases metabolic heat.
  • Avoid using salt tablets unless directed by a physician.
  • Avoid strenuous activity. If you must do something physically demanding, do it during the coolest part of the day, which is usually between 4:00 and 7:00 a.m.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Take regular breaks when engaging in physical activity on warm days. Take time out to find a cool place.

Common Heat-Related Disorders

Heat Disorder


First Aid

Heat Cramps

Painful spasms, usually in muscles of legs and abdomen due to heavy exertion. Heavy sweating.

Stop activity and rest in a cool place. Lightly stretch or gently massage muscle to relieve spasms. Give sips of cool water.

Heat exhaustion

Heavy sweating. Skin cool, pale, and clammy. Pulse fast and weak. Breathing fast and shallow. Fainting, dizziness, vomiting, and nausea.

Get victim to a cool place.
Have him/her lie down and loosen clothing. Apply cool, moist cloths. Give sips of cool water.

Heat stroke (sun stroke)

Temperature 103 F or higher. No sweating, rapid pulse, fast and shallow breathing. Hot, red, dry skin. Nausea, dizziness, headache, confusion.

Heat stroke is a severe medical emergency. Summon emergency assistance or get the victim to a hospital. Delay can be fatal. Move the victim to a cooler environment. Use cool baths or sponging to reduce body temperature.

Protecting Your Pets

Many people include their pets in outdoor activities, but animals, like humans, can easily overheat during the hot summer months. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) recommends these tips to prevent heat-related illness in a pet:

  • Limit exercise to the coolest part of the day, typically early in the morning. Even in the coolest part of the day, watch for signs of trouble. Glassy eyes and frantic panting indicate a dog needs help.
  • Make sure your dog has constant access to shade and an endless supply of cool, clean water.
  • Never leave a dog in a car, even for a few minutes.
  • Remember that older, obese and short-nosed dogs are less tolerant of heat.

Pet owners should be especially vigilant for signs of heat stroke. Heat stroke in animals can be deadly and requires emergency medical attention. While seeking medical help, cool the animal down with wet towels, spray him/her with cool water, or provide ice chips for him/her to chew if conscious.

Symptoms of heat stroke in animals can include the following:

  • Sluggish and non-responsive demeanor
  • Bright red and/or dry tongue and gums
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Unusual breathing patter, heavy panting, or high heart rate

To learn more about summertime safety for pets, contact your local SPCA. To make sure you’re prepared for heat and other summer safety hazards, contact your local American Red Cross chapter to enroll in a first aid class.

The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.

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