In July of 1995, the city of Chicago was caught unaware by an enemy it wasn’t prepared for and in the span of a week, over 700 people lost their lives. Chicago has faced its share of serious threats, including freezing cold winters and one of the highest murder rates in the country, but the city never saw this silent killer coming: Extreme heat.
The Dangers of Extreme Heat
Hollywood would have you believe the greatest natural threats to humanity are asteroids, ice storms, and even sharks in tornadoes, but like most products of the film industry, this is pure fantasy. The number one weather-related threat in the U.S. is extreme heat – and what it lacks in Hollywood glamour, it makes up for in devastation. Each year, hundreds of Americans die or suffer injuries from heat-related illnesses – the majority of which are society’s most vulnerable: the elderly and the poor.
However, much like the flu, heat-related illness can strike anyone, not only the most vulnerable. In one tragic case, a 27-year-old NFL player at the height of his career became dizzy, then unconscious, and later died, all within the span of several hours. The culprit? Exertional heat stroke (EHS).
Classic vs. Exertional Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can result in permanent injury or even death. Heat stroke occurs when your body’s core temperature rises above 104°F (40°C) and the body is no longer able to regulate itself. Sweating stops as this no longer helps relieve the body of heat and the person becomes confused, disoriented, and may lose consciousness. According to Dr. Corey Slovis, professor and chair of Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University, the effects of heat stroke put someone “at risk for permanent brain damage, heart and kidney damage and…death since heat stroke is potentially fatal.”
Classic heat stroke is typically contracted on hot days when people aren’t able to stay properly hydrated or during extreme heat waves when air-conditioned space is not readily available.
Exertional heat stroke is the type generally associated with athletes and can be contracted outside of seasonally high temperatures. Instead of the environment overheating the body’s core, it is the person’s physical exertion that causes the illness.
Other Heat-Related Illnesses:
While heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness, it is not the only one you need to watch out for.
Heat exhaustion has many similar symptoms to heat stroke but is differentiated by the presence sweat. If the person is sweating profusely, this means their body can still get rid of heat this way, and they are likely suffering from heat exhaustion. If not treated immediately, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
Heat cramps are muscle cramping in the legs, arms, or abdomen and are typically caused by lack of hydration or inadequate electrolytes in the system. Heat cramps can be treated with rest and hydration.
Sunburn is when the skin becomes hot and painful to the touch after unprotected exposure to the sun. Sunburns are preventable by using sunscreen, wearing clothing that covers the skin, and staying out of the sun.
Heat rash occurs when sweat doesn’t evaporate from the skin and results in clusters of red bumps. Heat rash is often seen in hot work environments.
Symptoms and Treatment:
Preventing Heat Illness
The good news is that heat illness is 100% preventable – everything from an inconvenient heat rash to life-threatening heat stroke can be avoided with proper precautions. By being aware of the dangers posed by extreme heat and knowing how to react to heat illness, you can keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
The best way to beat the heat is to avoid it, but for many workers this isn’t an option. The best way to keep yourself safe from heat illness while working outdoors is to acclimatize your body to the heat. To do this, start by working only an hour or two outside on the first day and gradually increase the amount of time you’re spending outside until you can work an 8-hour day. Most on-the-job heat illness occurs in newer workers who haven’t taken the time to acclimatize their bodies.
Stay Hydrated, Air-Conditioned
In cases of extreme heat (a period of two or more days of high humidity and temperatures over 90°F), the best way to protect yourself against heat exhaustion or stroke is to stay indoors in a properly air-conditioned environment. Ensure you stay hydrated by drinking water every 15 minutes, even when you’re not thirsty.
Revisiting Chicago’s deadly heat wave of July 1995, many of the deaths could have been avoided had people had access to air-conditioned spaces. Many of the victims were poor, elderly, and living alone, making them highly susceptible to heat stroke. Many health and safety changes were instituted after that disaster, including having the government ensure public, air-conditioned areas are available for people during extreme heat.