What to Do When There’s an Excessive Heat Warning

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If you’re in portions of Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, or Tennessee, you may have heard about an “excessive heat warning,” with temperatures predicted to be over 100 degrees for potentially several days. This is dangerous weather, so here’s what you should know.

What is an excessive heat warning?

First, let’s talk about the difference between a “warning” and a watch or outlook. A warning is the most serious of the three. As the Normal Fire Department famously explained with a taco analogy, a taco watch means that we have the ingredients to make tacos. A taco warning means you better get ready because we are having tacos right now.

Here’s how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes these three levels:

  • An excessive heat outlook means that an excessive heat event could occur in the next three to seven days.
  • An excessive heat watch means that weather conditions are such that an excessive heat event is likely in the next 24 to 72 hours.
  • An excessive heat warning means that a dangerous level of heat is coming in the next 12 to 24 hours. The Red Cross says this means it is time to “take precautions immediately to avoid heat-related illness.”
  • A heat advisory means that dangerous heat conditions are already happening.

You can see weather statements for your area by going to weather.gov, which has a big ol’ color coded map on the front page.

How to stay hydrated in a heat wave

Heat can be dangerous. If you get so hot that you cannot cool down, you’re susceptible to heat illness including heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

So, when it comes to taking care of yourself and checking on others, make sure to:

  • Stay hydrated. Drinking enough water allows your body to cool itself through sweating. Drink before you’re thirsty, and drink plenty of water; keep sugary and alcoholic drinks to a minimum.
  • Get electrolytes. You lose sodium from your body when you sweat, but normal food intake is usually enough to replace it. Sports drinks and electrolyte tablets are convenient, too.
  • Check with your doctor if you have a condition that requires you to keep a close eye on your hydration or electrolytes. They can give you more specific guidance on how much you should be drinking. Also ask if any of your medications can make you more susceptible to extreme heat; some can.

How to keep cool in a heat wave

First, stay in the air conditioning as much as you can. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, find air conditioned places you can spend time. These might be a friend’s or family member’s house, or public places like a shopping mall or a library. Communities often set up cooling stations for heat relief. If you can’t find one, check with your local health department.

When you have to go out, wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, and stay in the shade as much as you can. Bring your water. Don’t forget sunscreen if you’ll be in the sun, and remember that not all sunscreen is sweat-proof.

The early morning and late evening will be the least hot times to be outside. Plan in time to rest in the shade as needed, for example if you’re going to be walking to the store on an errand.

Electric fans are great for cooling you down if it’s mildly hot, but once temperatures are in the high 90’s or above, a fan alone can’t keep you cool enough to prevent heat illness. Seek out air conditioning, or take a cold shower or bath.

How to take care of loved ones in a heat wave

The same tips that you use for yourself apply to others as well, including children, pets, and elderly neighbors. Make sure never to leave children or pets in a car in the heat, even for a short time. Double check when you leave the car that everybody has gotten out.

If you know people who don’t have air conditioning, make sure to check on them. An estimated 80% of deaths from extreme heat occur in people who are 60 or older, so definitely check in on the older folks in your life. Find out if they’re able to keep themselves cool or if they need a ride to a cooling station. Check on their pets, too.

The Red Cross advises checking on older adults and people with chronic health conditions at least twice a day, and asking these questions:

  • Are they drinking enough water?
  • Do they have access to air conditioning?
  • Do they know how to keep cool?
  • Do they show any signs of heat stress?

Know the signs of heat illness

Heat exhaustion occurs when we can’t cool ourselves down enough. It’s not an emergency yet, but could quickly get worse. Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and feeling faint can all occur with heat exhaustion. The skin is usually cold, pale, clammy, and sweaty. If you’re throwing up from the heat or if your symptoms last more than an hour, it’s time to seek medical help.

Heatstroke is the next stage, and it’s an emergency. Call 911 if somebody has a high body temperature (over 103), if they act confused or drunk, if they pass out, or if they have stopped sweating and have hot, reddened skin. The CDC has more information here.

In either case, it’s important to cool the person down. (If you have called 911, do this while you wait for help.) Loosen clothes and consider a cold bath or shower, or place cool wet cloths on the person. You can offer them a sip of water if they have heat exhaustion, but skip this step if they have signs of heatstroke.

If all of this is too much to remember, the Red Cross has a printable fact sheet that includes tips for staying cool and a chart with the symptoms and recommended first aid for heat illness. It’s also available in Spanish.

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