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CDC study of extreme heat shows importance of staying cool

As temperatures are heating up, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reminding people to keep a cool head.

About 650 deaths each year from extreme heat could have been prevented, the CDC warned in a study published on June 6 in its journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In total there were 7,233 heat-related deaths from 1999 to 2009.

"Heat-related illnesses and deaths are preventable. Taking steps to stay cool, hydrated and informed in extreme temperatures can prevent serious health effects like heat exhaustion and heat stroke," said lead author Ethel Taylor, a researcher who works with the CDC.

In 2012, one large-scale heat event claimed 32 lives. Temperatures went above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and lasted for two weeks from June 30 to July 13, 2012. Nearly 3.8 million people lost power, some for up to eight days. Twelve deaths were reported in Maryland, 12 in Virginia, seven in Ohio and one in West Virginia.

Most at risk for heat illnesses and death are the elderly, children, the poor or those with pre-exisiting medical conditions. For the 2012 cases, half of victims were aged 65 and older, and 72 percent were male. Three-fourths of the time, the victims were unmarried or living alone.

"Having a 'heat response plan' is vital to those who are elderly, live alone or who do not have air conditioning. The goal is to focus on practical interventions for these groups of people to limit heat exposure in the event of an extreme heat event," Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told He was not involved in the CDC study.

In 14 of the deaths, people had cardiovascular disease, and in four situations, the victims had chronic respiratory disease.

"At least part of the reason for the heightened risk is related to the disease itself placing people at higher risk for dehydration as well as hyperthermia. However, an important additional factor is related to specific types of medications (blood pressure pills, diuretics) which can ultimately affect fluid balance and the state of hydration in the setting of extreme heat," Glatter pointed out.

Sixty-nine percent of the victims died at home, and there was no air conditioning 91 percent of the time.

The CDC recommended that in hot weather, people should try to keep their body temperatures down and stay hydrated. Wear appropriate clothing for the occasion, whether indoors or outside.

Being aware of extreme heat events and looking for warning signs for heat-related illness can also be helpful.

Heat stoke is a condition in which the body cannot regulate its own temperature, and may lead to death or permanent disability. Symptoms include a high body temperature above 103 degrees F, dizziness, nausea, confusion and unconsciousness. People may also have red, hot and dry skin with no sweating and a rapid, strong pulse. They could also experience a throbbing headache.

If someone is experiencing heat stroke, get them to a shady area and help cool them with whatever methods you know including putting them in a tub of cool water or a cool shower. Try to get their body temperature to drop to 101 to 102 degrees F. Do not give the victim something to drink, and get them medical help quickly.

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-illness which can occur after a few days of exposure to hot temperatures without replenishing fluids. Signs include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting and fainting. The person may have a fast and weak pulse as well as breathing, and the skin may be cool and moist.

If you see a person going through heat exhaustion, make sure they cool off through rest, drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages and stay in a colder area. Get medical help if their symptoms worsen or persist over an hour.

"Water is the ideal fluid for hydration, and it is recommended to avoid excessive amounts of caffeine which can lead to dehydration," Glatter explained. "Sports or energy drinks which contain high amounts of caffeine as well as sugar, and are not recommended in the setting of extreme heat as they also predispose individuals to great amounts of water loss and subsequent dehydration."

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