Heat Waves Are Becoming More Frequent—Here's How To Prepare and Adapt

Three-digit temperatures are becoming a regular part of daily life. Here's how to stay healthy amid a changing climate.

A boy sips water from a bottle during heatwave in Kolkata, India, 29 March, 2022. The temperature in the afternoon touches 42 degree according to an Indian Meteorological Department of Kolkata
Photo: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Depending on where you live in the United States, you may have already experienced what's been dubbed "extreme heat"—or weather that's far hotter and more humid than historic norms.

While warm weather is certainly a typical part of summer, more than 100 million Americans across the United States experienced dangerous and record-breaking heat conditions or heat advisories issued by the National Weather Service over this past weekend. In Austin, Texas— where the city logged its 44th day of triple-digit temperatures—news headlines proclaimed the city was on track for experiencing its hottest summer ever. And in Boston, Massachusetts the temperature hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, smashing previous record highs.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the United Kingdom shattered its record for the hottest day ever in history, reaching a temperature of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Welcome to what is becoming the new normal. Experts say that while extreme summer heat is not entirely new, these sorts of occurrences could be something that becomes a standard part of life, requiring people to start learning how to cope with longer stretches of heat waves that may continue for the rest of summer and well into the future.

"Extreme heat is already the number one most lethal form of extreme weather in the United States for the last 30 years," Kim Knowlton, DrPh, an assistant clinical professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, told Health. "Climate change-fueled extreme heat, caused by people's energy choices, is something we'll be forced to contend with for the foreseeable future and next several decades at least."

As the impacts of climate change become more serious with each passing day, here's what you need to know about the dangers of extreme heat and what you can do to adapt your lifestyle moving forward and keep safe.

Why Is Extreme Heat So Dangerous?

Even though extreme heat may not always destroy infrastructure in a matter of minutes—in the same way a significant hurricane or flood might—heat events can still kill thousands of people.

Extreme heat is life threatening because it can trigger serious health consequences including severe dehydration and heat stroke. When heat stroke occurs, one's body temperature rises, which can damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles, Ashwini Sehgal, MD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told Health.

"Extreme heat can lead to death. Several thousand people die every year in the United States because of heat, said Dr. Sehgal.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) backs up what Dr. Sehgal is saying. The agency reports more than 1,300 deaths occur in the United States every year due to extreme heat. In addition, from 1999 to 2010, more than 8,000 heat-related deaths were reported in this country, with 72% of those deaths caused by exposure to excessive heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When the body's ability to dissipate heat and keep the body core cool fails, your core temperature rises. The body tries to cool itself mainly through sweating by pumping blood flow to the skin's surface to dissipate that heat.

"But, if the body simply can't keep up with the needed cooling, it can cause heat exhaustion, swelling, cramps, and fainting," Knowlton explained. "In the U.S., there have been more than 65,000 emergency room visits for these heat-related illnesses annually, on average."

In addition to heat stroke, during extreme heat events there's also typically a spike in deaths from other causes such as cardiovascular and respiratory ailments, among others, because the higher temperatures put a great deal of added stress on those organ systems, Knowlton said. Older adults are the most vulnerable to the heat and make up the majority of heat-related deaths because aging can weaken the heart and lungs.

How to Maintain Safety During Extreme Heat Events

Individuals who find themselves suddenly having to cope with frequent extreme heat events, especially high temperatures that last for extended periods of time, should begin shifting their regular physical activities and routines. In order to adapt to climate changes, plan activities for cooler times of day, such as the early morning and late evening.

"Remember that even healthy, young athletes can be harmed by extreme heat, so every activity, indoors or outdoors, should be evaluated when extreme heat hits," Knowlton said. "Not every household, school, or workplace has air conditioning—so taking mindful precautions is wise for everyone."

It's also a good idea to decrease the intensity or duration of certain exercises and activities during extreme heat in order to help maintain your routines, but also to prevent experiencing harm from the higher temperature, Jan Carney, MD, MPH, associate dean for public health and health policy at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, told Health.

Some of the additional ways to stay safe during extreme heat events include:

  • Hydrate and drink plenty of water
  • Look for shade or remain in shade when outside
  • Utilize shades, sunglasses, sun hats and sun umbrellas
  • Wear loose-fitting, light-weight and light-colored clothing
  • Apply sunscreen frequently to prevent sun damage to the skin
  • Avoid cooking large meals that can add heat to your indoor environment
  • Eat lighter meals and avoid consuming alcoholic beverages
  • Spend as much time as you can in air-conditioned or otherwise cooled spaces

Most importantly, Dr. Carney said people should make a plan in advance of extreme heat, and begin to learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, knowing what to do if these symptoms occur.

"Learn the signs of heat illness, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which can be life-threatening," Dr. Carney added. "Know where to get help if you need it. Check often on your loved ones, including your pets and your neighbors. Stay cool and hydrated until temperatures fall."

Environmentally Friendly Ways to Deal With The Heat

With experts far and wide pointing out that the extreme heat events are being caused by climate change, it can also be a good idea to look for eco-friendly ways to stay healthy during soaring temperatures, when possible. If you'd like to avoid cranking the air conditioning, here are some of the ways to still maintain your health and safety, according to Dr. Carney, and Kuljit Kapur, DO, chief medical officer for Transitions Care MD.

  • Find shade in public parks
  • Sit outside when the temperature is not too hot or during non-peak sun hours
  • Cook outdoors to keep the temperature down indoors
  • Keep curtains and shades partially or entirely closed
  • Use dehumidifiers to draw down the humidity
  • Utilize house fans to keep your house cool

Adapting to Extreme Heat Over the Long Term

Extreme heat is here to stay. Meaning individuals will increasingly need to begin learning how to cope with sometimes long stretches of excessive temperatures. One of the ways to accomplish this is by staying healthy overall, getting regular exercise, and eating the most nutritious foods. Doing these things can help keep the body's natural thermal regulation robust and working well, said Knowlton.

You should also get into the habit of tracking extreme heat in your area. The CDC operates a Heat & Health Tracker platform that can be used to obtain local information about the heat conditions where you live, so that you can better prepare and respond. The tracker can be used to explore how the heat affects your county and even offers resources to help respond to heat events. Accessing resources of this type and educating yourself in general about heat and staying healthy, will be an important part of life.

"Educate yourself on ways to keep cool and lower your risk to heat exhaustion and more serious issues. A lot of good information out there," said Brett Anderson, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. "In areas that typically did not need to have air conditioning during the summer, people may need to consider future modifications to their home to keep it cool. Plant more trees that can help shade the house. If adding a new roof, a lighter color may help, as it reflects more of the sun's energy compared to a darker surface."

Governments have a role and responsibility to play as well, according to the EPA, which pointed out that local governments can take steps to help residents, infrastructure and systems reduce their vulnerability to heat.

At a community level, increasing the number of green spaces and planting more trees can provide much needed access to shade during extreme heat events, according to the EPA. Governments can also implement energy-efficient measures to reduce disruptions and stress on electricity systems during heat waves, the EPA said. Cities can also incorporate cooling roofs or pavements to reduce high temperatures in urban areas.

Still more helpful steps governments might take include establishing early warning systems and urban cooling centers.

"The biggest action we can take—in combination with all of these heat adaptations—is to advocate for using cleaner, non-polluting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, so that we're not pumping more heat-trapping pollution into the world's atmosphere," Knowlton added.

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