As I relayed last week, Time magazine’s Angela Haupt warned in a recent report that the wave of extreme temperatures we are now experiencing are not only unpleasant and irritating but they are messing with our minds and have been linked to acts of aggression and violence.
High temperatures have historically shown to be more of a health threat than folks may imagine. “Extreme heat is one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the U.S. each year, claiming about 158 lives per year nationwide over the past 30 years,” she reports.
Many Americans now find themselves in the thick of a terrible heat wave, as the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center tweeted July 21 that “60 daily high temperature records have been tied/broken as dangerous heat enveloped much of the Nation.”
“More than 100 million people in the United States (are) facing excessive heat … 100-degree temperatures became uncomfortably routine on both sides of the Atlantic,” reports Matthew Cappucci and Meryl Kornfield of the Washington Post.
The consequences of such heat exposure can be very real, but what does it mean in relation to our long-term health?
As Dr. Ari Bernstein of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently explained on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” safety strategies that people should employ kick in when the temperature hits about 85 F or above.
“(Excessive temperatures) makes us sweat more, and that can make us dehydrated. And our organs don’t really like being dehydrated,” he says. “It can also just directly create more heat in the body. And when, you know, our body gets too hot, things don’t work normally … We’re designed to regulate our temperature. And if there’s too much heat outside and our body’s ability to dissipate heat can’t deal, the body temperature rises. And that makes our hearts and our lungs and our brains and even our kidneys and other organs not work well … Certainly people who have existing heart problems, lung problems, kidney problems, even mental health issues — they get sicker.”
“It is not a reason to keep children from being outdoors,” he adds. “I think we need to balance what are immense benefits, you know, particularly in summer, of children getting out, exercising, doing all those things with being careful about temperatures that, as we know, as this current moment in time makes abundantly clear, are much higher than they have been.”
That said, it is noted that a child born in the United States today “is probably going to experience something like four or five times as many dangerous heat waves than a child who was born in 1960.”
There is a lot of great advice now readily available on things we can do to combat the threats posed by excessive heat. You may know about many, but the pivotal question is, are you practicing them?
Haupt suggests just being smart when scheduling outdoor events can make a difference. Says Wendell Porter, a senior lecturer emeritus in agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida, “Avoid scheduling or attending outdoor gatherings from around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., unless there’s ample shade.”
The Extreme Environments Laboratory, a research group that seeks to enhance comfort, performance and survival under harsh conditions, has learned that spraying yourself with cool tap water and then fanning yourself with your hands or a piece of paper, or by standing in front of a fan, to be a particularly effective way to promote cooling. “It simulates sweating on the skin, and then evaporation and convective cooling of the skin,” says Heather Massey, a senior lecturer in clinical exercise physiology and member of the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.
Hands and feet are “amazing radiators of heat, especially when we’ve got an elevated deep body temperature,” Massey says. Children feeling overheated who go into a restroom to wash their hands in cold water have the right idea, says Massey.
Water keeps every system in the body functioning properly, Harvard Health reminds us. It keeps every system in the body functioning properly. “Staying hydrated is a daily necessity, no matter what the thermometer says,” they write. “Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting enough to drink, especially older adults. Older people don’t sense thirst as much as they did when they were younger. And that could be a problem if they’re on a medication that may cause fluid loss, such as a diuretic.”
While a “daily four-to-six cup rule is for generally healthy people,” they also stress that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “Water intake must be individualized, and you should check with your doctor if you are not sure about the right amount for you.”
As recently pointed out by USA Today reporter Elizabeth Weise, there are lots of old-fashioned ways to keep you and your home cool when temperatures soar.
Simply closing blinds and curtains during the day helps, especially for east- and west-facing windows, she says. Then, when temperatures start to fall at night, open windows with screens. Keeping interior doors open at night is also a way to let the air temperature in your home “equalize,” which will ultimately “help bring temperatures down slightly overall.”
Run the bathroom exhaust fan when you shower longer than you typically would, channeling “all that hot, humid air to end up outside.” Also, practice drying laundry inside your home. “Do what your great-grandmother did,” she writes, “and put (a) rack up in the living room and drape the damp clothes over it to dry. As they do, evaporative cooling lowers the temperature in the room as long as the windows are open so the moist air can get out.
In short, follow best practices, be smart and stay safe.