Beat the heat: Experts give best practices for preventing heat-related illnesses

As temperatures heat up, the risk of contracting a heat-related illness increases. Experts at UAB discuss the best ways to stay safe this summer.
Written by: Katherine Kirk
Media contact: Anna Jones

Stream heat best practicesAs temperatures get higher the risks of contracting a heat-related illness increase. Experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham discuss the best ways to stay safe this summer.High temperatures mean high risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,200 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year.

Heat stroke prevention

Staying hydrated is key to preventing heat-related illness. Individuals planning to be outside for an extended period should carry a water bottle everywhere they go. Women need approximately 2.7 liters of water a day, and men need approximately 3.7 liters of water a day, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Marie-Carmelle Elie, M.D., chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine, encourages individuals to learn the signs of heat illness to help prevent death from heat-related illnesses.

“Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are the two most dangerous conditions,” Elie said. “Older adults, young children and those with preexisting conditions are at highest risk; but anyone can develop heat-related illnesses under the right conditions.”

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • High body temperature, above 103 degrees
  • Hot, red, dry skin
  • Rapid and strong pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion 

Signs of heat exhaustion are:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Weakness
  • Cold, pale, clammy skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Muscle cramps

“Heat stroke is a medical emergency — call 911 immediately if heat stroke is suspected,” Elie said. “For heat exhaustion, reduce the person’s body temperature with cool cloths or even a bath, but do not give fluids.”

small Heatstroke graphic 2Click image to enlarge.
Graphic by: Jody Potter
Child heat safety

Candice Dye, M.D., a pediatrician at UAB, says exposure to high temperatures, high humidity and direct sunlight coupled with little rest can take its toll on a child’s body.

“It’s important to remember that children are prone to overheating and dehydrating very quickly, but often they don’t appropriately convey their thirst or exhaustion,” Dye said. “We can’t wait for them to tell us when they are hot or thirsty — we as adults have to give them those prompts and stay mindful.”

Dye notes that babies should be of top concern during the summer heat because they have not matured enough to produce sweat like older children or adults, nor do they have the same measures to self-regulate body temperature.

Some signs that a child might be experiencing effects from the heat include increased sweating, signs of thirst, which include drying of the mouth and lips, and fatigue.

“I recommend that parents stay on top of their child’s hydration by sending extra water bottles with them to camp or day care, or if their child is playing outside, making them drink water every half hour or so,” Dye said. “Fruit and vegetable snacks like oranges, strawberries, cucumber and watermelon can also help keep children hydrated in a fun yet healthy way.”

Hot car safety for children 

The summer often leads to changes in family routines, so as the temperature gets hotter, it becomes crucial that parents check their backseats before leaving the car.  

David Schwebel, Ph.D., director of the Youth Safety Lab at UAB, says children contracting a heat-related illness due to being left in the backseat of a car is an issue and becomes more common as the temperature begins to rise and cars heat up more quickly. 

“This is a terrible incident that often stems from a change in routine,” Schwebel said. “When one parent is not used to taking the baby to day care, they are in the mindset that they are going to work and drive there automatically, leaving the baby in the backseat when they arrive at work.”

He says this accident typically occurs with newborns to children who are about 3 years old, because children in this age range do not speak out for themselves as often, and the parents may forget the child is there.

“This type of accident does not happen often, but it is very tragic when it does happen,” Schwebel said. “I recommend always leaving something in the backseat with the baby that you do not want to forget.”

Leaving something like a phone or a purse in the backseat with the child may help parents to check before leaving and locking their car. Temperatures are getting higher, and leaving a baby in the car without the air conditioning can be fatal.

“Many people say this type of accident could never happen to them; but unfortunately, it can happen to anyone, so learning how to prevent it is crucial for parents,” Schwebel said.