Between the heat waves, the heat domes and the record-breaking heat, one thing is clear this summer: it’s already a scorcher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines extreme heat as “summertime temperatures that are much hotter and/or humid than average.” While that may sound like no big deal, in reality heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States taking a greater toll than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods—combined. Every year, approximately 1,220 people die in this country because of heat and scores more end up in the emergency room because of heat-related illnesses. Heat can lead to a medical emergency by causing heat stroke (which happens when the body can no longer regulate its own temperature). And it can also make existing illnesses worse, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes and mental health conditions. Heat can also increase the risk of accidents and even make people more susceptible to some infectious diseases.

As we sweat our way deeper into the sweltering Alabama summer, it’s a good time for a reminder of the proper precautions to take to protect yourself and your family from the heat. Here are some things to consider.   

  1. Know who faces a higher risk. While anyone can fall ill from the heat, some people are more vulnerable than others, according to the CDC. Those include:
    • People with asthma, especially children
    • People with heart disease
    • Pregnant people
    • Adults 65 and older
    • Infants and young kids
    • People who work outside or exercise in the heat
  1. Educate yourself about the effects of any medications you take. Always read the information that comes with your prescriptions and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you should take any precautions during the summer to protect yourself from heat. Certain medications (including ones to treat high blood pressure, allergies and mental health conditions) may impact your sensitivity to heat if they: reduce your thirst, interfere with your body’s thermoregulation, interfere with how you sweat, reduce the dilation of your blood vessels, cause cognitive impairment and more. For a more extensive list of effects and the types of medication that may cause them visit the CDC’s website.
  2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. When it’s hot, you sweat to cool off. In order to sweat, you need to be hydrated, and water is about as good as it gets when it comes to healthy hydration. Make hydration convenient by carrying a refillable water bottle with you and sip it throughout the day. At the same time, avoid drinking energy drinks, which could cause more strain on your heart on a hot day; and avoid drinking alcohol, which can dehydrate you and actually increase your risk of developing a heat-related illness.
  3. Have a plan in place in case you need to go someplace cool. If you don’t have access to an air-conditioned home, then find a cooling center or visit a library, shopping mall or community center for a reprieve from the heat. If you must be outside, try to stay in the shade (especially during the hottest parts of the day) and wear loose, light-colored, sun-protective clothing. If you’re working in the heat, take breaks and keep drinking water throughout the day.
  4. Learn the signs of common heat-related illnesses. That way, you can recognize them in yourself and others and get help. Here’s what to look for, and what to do, according to the CDC:
    • Heat stroke:
      • An extremely high body temperature
      • Signs of confusion
      • Losing consciousness
      • Dizziness
      • Nausea
      • Skin that is hot, red, dry or damp
      • Fast strong pulse
      • What to do: Call 911 or take the person to the hospital. In the meantime, move the person to a cooler place and try to bring down their body temperature. Don’t give them anything to drink.
    • Heat exhaustion
      • Heavy sweating
      • Fast but weak pulse
      • Skin that is cold, pale and clammy
      • Tiredness/weakness
      • Dizziness
      • Nausea/vomiting
      • Headache
      • Fainting/passing out
      • What to do: Go someplace cool. Take a cool shower or bath. Seek help if you’re vomiting, if symptoms get worse or if symptoms last more than an hour.
    • Heat cramps
      • Sweating heavily while exercising
      • Muscle pains/spasms
      • What to do: Stop moving and go someplace cool. Sip a sports drink or water. If cramps last an hour or more, seek medical help; also, get help if you’re on a low-sodium diet or you have heart problems.
    • Heat rash
      • Red bumps that appear on the skin, often on the neck and upper chest, groin or in elbow creases.
      • What to do: Heat rash usually clears up on its own, once a person has cooled off. Keep it dry and use powder to soothe it.
  1. Know which numbers to watch. It’s not just the temperature to keep your eye on when the mercury rises. Humidity levels, when combined with heat, can also play a big role in exacerbating existing health conditions and could even lead to health emergencies. Something called the “heat index” is the temperature that it feels like outside when taking into account both the heat and the humidity. It explains why a temperature of 95 could actually feel like 107 when the humidity levels reach 50 percent.

With that said, there are some heat index numbers to be aware of. According to the National Weather Service, a heat index of 130 or higher could lead to heat stroke or sunstroke with ongoing exposure; at 105 to 130 degrees, people who are outside for an extended period of time, or who are engaging in physical activity, face a “likely” risk of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and sunstroke; at 90 to 105 degrees, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and sunstroke are “possible” for people with people who are outside for an extended period of time, or who are engaging in physical activity; and at 80 to 90 degrees, fatigue is possible with prolonged exposure and/or physical activity.

Air quality often suffers during a heat wave, because hot weather can worsen ozone levels and increase air pollution. The people who are most vulnerable to these changes include children, older adults, people with asthma and lung diseases and individuals who work or exercise outside. Measurement of air quality is called the U.S. Air Quality Index, or AQI, and you can usually find it on your regular weather report. AQI ranges from zero to 500, with higher numbers indicating worsening quality. Those who are sensitive to air quality may face an elevated risk at 51 and above. Learn more here.  

We all know that summer and heat go hand in hand. But it’s important to remember that too much heat can become dangerous quickly. By educating yourself and your family about any potential risks, you can make informed decisions as you take strides to stay cool and safe.