Officials warn of heat’s dangers; 3 Va. deaths so far in 2012


Kids near Fort Dupont Park cool off during Washington’s last bout of heat on June 21. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)
June 29, 2012

Health departments are urging local officials and residents to take precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses as temperatures soar over the next few days. Virginia has already had three heat-related deaths so far this year, officials said.

The Maryland health department is activating its emergency heat plan starting Friday, and the plan will be in effect through Sunday. Forecasters are predicting that highs might reach the century mark in the Washington region and in much of the eastern half of the United States.

In Maryland, the state’s extreme-heat emergency plan is activated whenever heat-index values have the potential to reach or exceed 105 degrees. The District’s heat plan, already in effect, is activated when the heat index reaches 95 degrees. Virginia health officials have also posted tips online for residents to stay healthy in the heat.

Health officials in Maryland and the District said they were not aware of heat-related deaths this year. But heat-related deaths often are not identified as such until weeks after the fact, officials have said.

Residents should stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible, drink more water than usual, and avoid drinks with caffeine, alcohol and large amounts of sugar.

Groups at the greatest risk for heat-related illness include infants and young children, youth athletes, people 65 and older and people with certain medical conditions, including mental illness, diabetes and hypertension.

Heat-related illnesses include:

Heat cramps: These are short, severe cramps in the muscles of the leg, arm or abdomen that can happen during or after heavy exercise in extreme heat. Heavy sweating uses up the body’s supply of salts, which causes the cramps. Heat cramps also may be a symptom of heat exhaustion.

If you have heat cramps, officials say, you should:

●Stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place.

●Drink water, a sports drink or other drinks that do not contain caffeine or alcohol.

●Do not resume activity for a few hours after the cramps subside, because heat cramps can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

●Get medical help if the cramps do not go away in one hour.

Heat exhaustion: This occurs when a person spends time in a hot environment without drinking enough fluids. Symptoms include extreme thirst, fatigue, weakness, clammy skin, nausea or vomiting, and rapid breathing.

For heat exhaustion, you should:

●Drink water or other cool drinks with no alcohol or caffeine.

●Rest.

●Take a cool shower or bath.

●Go to an air-conditioned environment.

●Wear lightweight clothing.

Heat stroke: The most serious heat-related illness, heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature rises too rapidly — to as much as 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Symptoms of heat stroke include red, hot and dry skin, no sweating and a rapid, weak pulse.

For heat stroke, officials advise that victims be taken to a shady or cool area and emergency medical assistance be called immediately. Until medical assistance arrives, do the following:

●Cool the victim as quickly as possible with a cool bath or shower or a spray of cool water from a garden hose. Or, wrap the victim in a cool, wet sheet.

●Check the body temperature often and continue cooling efforts until its temperature drops to 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

●Give the victim water or other nonalcoholic fluids.

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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