Saturday, July 4, 2020 | 2 a.m.
July might be known for fireworks and cookouts, but summer fun carries a deadly danger. According to the Southern Nevada Health District, July leads the season for the highest number of heat-related fatalities. Of the 123 heat-related deaths that occurred in Clark County in 2017, 48 of them happened in July.
The best way to beat the heat is to stay inside in the air conditioning. Beyond that …
• Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids, and rehydrate often. (The same goes for your pets.)
• Plan outdoor activity during the coolest part of the day. That’s generally early morning in Las Vegas.
• Move more slowly, and take your time. Just like at a swimming pool, walk, don’t run.
• Wear light, breathable clothing.
• Protect yourself with a hat and sunscreen.
• Avoid alcohol.
• Electrolyte sports drinks are a great way to replenish fluids and sodium, especially if you’re sweating a lot and exerting yourself in the heat.
“It’s sad because they’re all preventable if we would just be a little more careful,” says Dr. Derek Meeks, director of the emergency department at Boulder City Hospital and a vice dean at Touro University. “It’s not like cancer that’s really not preventable.”
Meeks cites a “lack of awareness” as a reason why people die from such a preventable affliction. The Nevada sun has a way of sneaking up on you. “Maybe they don’t realize that their bodies aren’t ready to be exposed to that heat for such a long period of time.
“I do know from working in the ER that people who are not acclimated to our environment do suffer more,” he says. “They’re not as careful. They go out to Lake Mead, and they might be in the sun all day long, not realizing how dangerous it can be. We definitely do see that among visitors.”
With the ongoing pandemic keeping Nevadans socially distant, there’s a possibility that more people will venture into nature in the heat of the summer. So everybody needs to be extra careful.
“The best key is prevention,” Meeks says. “If you don’t need to be out there, don’t do it. Or do it in small amounts.”
Signs of heat illness
• Heat cramps If you suddenly experience muscle pain or cramps along with heavy sweating, you might be experiencing the first level of heat illness. Muscle spasms are often caused by dehydration, during which muscles lose electrolytes.
What to do? This is your body’s way of telling you to chill out. Go inside. Stop your outdoor exertion. Drink water or a sports drink.
• Heat exhaustion: This dangerous condition includes the sweating and pain of heat cramps but includes more severe symptoms, including headache or dizziness, nausea or vomiting, tiredness or weakness, fast or weak pulse, and fainting or passing out.
What to do? Go inside or to a cool place. Loosen your clothing. Take a cool bath or put cool, wet cloths on your body. Sip water. Seek immediate medical help if symptoms worsen or last longer than an hour, or if you vomit.
Worried that wearing a mask might make you overheat? Don’t be. According to Dr. Meeks, the risk of getting coronavirus from not wearing a mask is greater than the risk of heat stroke while wearing a mask. “One good thing about the coronavirus is perhaps that it’s keeping us indoors more during the heat,” Meeks says. “And obviously if you’re indoors, you’re less susceptible to the heat illnesses.” So stay cool and keep that mask on!
Heat stroke kills. It features many of the same symptoms as heat exhaustion (nausea, dizziness, headache, passing out), but also confusion, hot skin and a soaring body temperature. Basically at this point, the body has lost the ability to self-regulate. You’re so dehydrated that your body cannot sweat anymore. Huge spikes in body temperature can cause brain damage or death. What to do? Heat stroke is a dire medical emergency, so call 911. Move the person to a cool location and reduce their body temperature with a bath or cool, wet cloths. Do not give them anything to drink if they are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, due to a risk of aspiration. Instead, use the water externally to cool down their body.
About 20 years ago, a lot of homeless people were dying from heat-related illnesses. So in the early 2000s, local authorities—including the emergency manager, coroner’s office and the Weather Service—teamed up to offer free cooling stations to anybody who needs a break during days of excessive heat.
“It’s nothing fancy, just a community center or day room where people can sit in the AC and have a cup of water,” says Carolyn Levering, emergency management administrator for the City of Las Vegas. “Something that simple can save lives.” (Levering says that COVID-19 shouldn’t present an issue for cooling stations this year, because they’re big enough to accommodate social distancing.)
For more information about excessive heat and other emergencies, Levering recommends downloading the free phone app Southern Nevada Preparedness.
Hot cars kill
As a rule, never leave a living creature—child or pet—in your car while you run an errand. When it’s 110 degrees outside, it might be obvious that cars become ovens. But the danger exists at much lower degrees. Even if it’s only 70 degrees outside, a car’s interior can reach dangerous temperatures in a short amount of time—104 degrees after 30 minutes; 113 degrees after an hour—according to Dr. Meeks.
“You just can’t leave your kids in there at all, and cracking the window doesn’t do it,” he says. “It might reduce that [heat] slightly, but not nearly enough. So never, ever leave a pet or a child in a car. Ever.”
How to acclimate to the heat
If you need to be outside for prolonged periods of time, you can plan ahead to help your body adjust to the heat. Expose yourself gradually and regularly to the summer heat. It will take about two weeks for your body to get used to the higher temps, and people who are physically fit will have the best outcomes.
Still, heat acclimatization isn’t a perfect solution. Once the mercury goes above 90 degrees, nobody’s completely safe. “Even then, you’ve got to make sure you’re well-hydrated, and that you keep hydrating,” Dr. Meeks says.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.