Heat safety 101
Summer in the Valley of the sun can be brutal -- and dangerous.
There's hot, and then there's hot. We experience both. On average the Phoenix metro area sweats through 92 days (three months!) of 100 degrees or higher and 11 days (nearly two weeks) of 110 degrees or more, according to the National Weather Service. Those numbers jump to 109 and 18 if you look at the data from 1981-2010.
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While those who live here always say, "It's a dry heat," 110-plus degrees is some serious stuff, not to be trifled with.
Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in Arizona and the U.S., according to Will Humble, the director of the Division of Health Policy and Program Evaluation the University of Arizona’s Health Sciences Center. Heat kills more people than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires -- combined.
"It’s hard to take a picture of heat so it gets less attention than things like floods, lightning, hurricanes and tropical storms," said Humble, former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. "The Arizona heat is a lot more than a nuisance – it’s dangerous and lethal."
An average of more than 120 people died of heat-related illness every year between 2001 and 2013. Hundreds more, nearly 2,000, landed in emergency rooms throughout the state.
Nobody is immune, but some are more at risk than others.
"It's particularly dangerous for folks that either have outdoor occupations or that do outdoor work or even are exercising in the heat of the day, if they haven’t ‘cameled’ up with water before hand," Humble said.
Heat is nefarious
Heat-related illness sneaks up on you and can go from bad to worse to deadly in a stunningly short time.
There are several things you can -- and should -- do to protect yourself, especially if you have to be out in the sweltering sun.
Heat-related illness -- heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heatstroke -- results when your body is desperately trying to cool itself. As WebMD explains, blood rushes to the surface of your skin. That means less blood is getting to your brain, muscles and other organs -- the things that make your body go.
Heat exhaustion happens when your body loses large amounts of water and sodium through excessive sweating.
Heat cramps are similar but generally strike during heavy exertion.
Heatstroke, the most dangerous, happens when your body can no longer cool itself. When you stop sweating, it's past time to worry.
The first symptom of all of these is dehydration, and it can be sneaky. The basic rule is if you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Conventional wisdom says you should be drinking eight glasses of water -- 64 ounces -- every day. In reality, most people should be drinking more.
There really is no one-size-fits-all solution here.
The amount of water you need to drink depends quite a bit on what you eat. Some foods provide your body with needed water while others, especially those high in sodium, leech it from your system.
Just as different foods affect the amount of water you should be consuming, so do different drinks. When it comes to hydration, not all fluids are created equal. Water is the best drink. Sodas and coffee containing caffeine can often contribute to dehydration, as can beer and other alcohol.
There are other factors, too. Medications you take and your lifestyle also play into your personal "how much water should I drink" formula.
Some doctors say most Phoenicians live in a state of mild dehydration during the summer.
SLIDESHOW: Hottest days in Phoenix
Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration
- Dry or sticky mouth
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Decreased urine output
- Dry skin
Your urine is a great indicator of your hydration level. Light or clear means you are well hydrated. Dark yellow or amber urine generally signals dehydration.
Mild to moderate dehydration can usually be dealt with by taking in more fluids, especially water or some kind of electrolyte-balanced sports drink.
Severe dehydration, however, is another matter. It’s a medical emergency that requires a 911 call and immediate care at a hospital or urgent care clinic.
Symptoms of severe dehydration
- Extreme thirst
- Irritability and confusion
- Very dry mouth
- Lack of sweating
- Little or no urination
- Sunken eyes
- Dry skin that has lost its elasticity
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Delirium or unconsciousness (in the worst cases)
When it comes to dehydration, the best defense is a good offense. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day, particularly before and during any kind of exercise or exertion. Guzzling water might be refreshing, but too much at a time can throw off your electrolytes or make you sick. Steady is the way to go.
If you're going to be out and about in the heat -- whether for work or play -- there are several things you need to do.
Make sure you…
- Hydrate before you head out
- Have at least 16-32 ounces of water for every hour you're going to be out
- Have your cell phone and be sure it's charged in case you need help
- Take breaks to cool off, indoors if you can
- Wear light colors and loose clothing
- Wear a hat or use an umbrella
- Wear sunscreen to protect your skin; you'll need to reapply it if you go swimming or sweat it off
What to do when heat-related illness sets in
- Move the person to a cooler location
- Remove or loosen tight clothing
- Apply cool, wet towels
- Fan the person
- Give him or her small sips of cool water; do not let him or her drink too much too fast
If you suspect heatstroke
- Call 911 immediately
- Do everything listed above
- For rapid cooling, apply ice or cold packs wrapped in cloth to wrists, ankles, groin, neck and armpits
The Salvation Army sets up "hydration stations" throughout the Phoenix metro area to help out on days deemed "heat emergencies" by the National Weather Service.
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You can help the Salvation Army by donating unopened bottles of water at any Hydration Station location. You also can make a monetary donation online. If you would like to volunteer at a hydration station, check out PhoenixSA.VolunteerFirst.org or call 602-267-4117.
Helping those who might need it
In addition to protecting yourself from the potentially deadly heat, you also have to look out for the most vulnerable among us.
If you have elderly friends or neighbors or know somebody who is dealing with a serious illness, check in on them. A phone call is great, but stopping by is better. You can make sure their home is cool enough and that they have everything they need.
Babies and kids
If you are a parent or caregiver and are out and about with your little ones, make sure they are well-hydrated and double, triple and quadruple check to make sure you do not leave them in the car.
Babies' bodies do not cool themselves as effectively as adults' bodies. A baby's body temperature increases three to five times faster than an adult's, and the temperature inside a closed car is significantly higher than the mercury reading outside. What's more, it doesn't take long for the temperature inside a car to become unbearable.
On an 80-degree day, the temperature inside a car can soar to well over 100 degrees in just a few minutes. You can imagine what happens when the mercury hits 100 or even 110.
"On hot days, objects inside a vehicle such as the steering wheel or seats can easily reach temperatures over 200 degrees (F), causing the vehicle’s interior to heat up very rapidly," according to the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
How fast does it heat up?
- +20 degrees within 10 minutes
- +30 degrees within 20 minutes
"[H]eatstroke is the leading cause of non-collision fatalities for children 14 and younger ...," according to Safe Kids AZ, an initiative by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Between 1990 and 2015, 755 children were victims of vehicular heatstroke, according to KidsAndCars.org. On average, 37 children die each year from heat-related illness after being left in a car. That's one every nine days.There are even more close calls.
"As of 2016, Arizona ranks fourth per capita in the United States for children’s deaths caused by being left in hot vehicles," according to ADCS. "This ranking represents a drop from third place due to the heightened awareness of alert citizens who undoubtedly saved lives in 2015. More needs to be done to protect children from this danger, and being aware of the danger is key ...."
#DoubleCheck for kids in cars
It can happen to anybody, especially considering that rear-facing seats always look the same regarding of whether a child is strapped in. Plus babies tend to fall asleep in cars, which means they're quiet.
"In an overwhelming majority of child vehicular heatstroke deaths, it was a loving, responsible parent that unknowingly left the child," according to KidsAndCars.org.
VALLEY MOM'S STORY: "Nobody is immune from this type of accident."
"Get in the habit of always opening the back door to check the back seat before leaving your vehicle," KidsAndCars.org suggests. "Make sure no child has been left behind."
To that end, the site suggests creating a reminder to check the back seat.
"Put something you'll need like your cell phone, handbag, employee ID or brief case, etc., in the back seat so that you have to open the back door to retrieve that item every time you park," advises the site. "Keep a large stuffed animal in the child's car seat. When the child is placed in the car seat, put the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat. It's a visual reminder that the child is in the back seat."
RESOURCE: Safety tips from KidsAndCars.org (PDF)
There are tech solutions, car seat sensors and apps, that can be helpful, as well.
Also, make sure your car is always locked. It's a fun place to play and it's not hard for a child to lock him or herself inside without anybody knowing. Along those lines, keep keys and fobs out of children's reach.
Should a child go missing, there are two places you need to check immediately -- the swimming pool and the car.
What if you see a child alone in a car?
"If you see a child alone in a car, don’t worry about getting involved in someone else’s business -- protecting children is everyone’s business; besides, 'Good Samaritan' laws offer legal protection for those who offer assistance in an emergency," according to SafeCar.gov.
Don't forget Fido
Kids are not the only one in danger of being left in a hot car. Pets are, too.
"Every year we see this very preventable tragedy occur, claiming the lives of children and pets," said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. "We want to remind residents that leaving a child or pet in a vehicle is potentially fatal and, in some circumstances, a criminal offense."
Speaking of pets, if it's too hot for you, it's too hot for them.
If you're hiking with your dog (or cat, although that's highly unlikely), make sure you have plenty of water for both of you.
Also, dogs' paws are sensitive and the pavement is hot. Consider walking them during the (relatively) cool hours or invest in some booties designed to protect their paws.
The best place for your pets during the hot summer months -- any time, really -- is inside. If they have to be outside, make sure they have access to plenty of cool water -- do not use metal bowls -- and a shady place.
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