Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness

— Written By and last updated by

When people are exposed to extreme heat, they can suffer from potentially deadly heat related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States.

Heat-related illness occurs when the body’s temperature control system is overloaded. Although any one at any time can suffer from heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others. Check regularly on:

  • Infants and young children
  • People aged 65 or older
  • People who have a mental illness
  • Those who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure

Even young and healthy people can get sick from the heat if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather. For heat-related illness, the best defense is prevention.

  • Drink more fluids, nonalcoholic fluids, regardless of your activity level. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Warning: If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him how much you should drink while the weather is hot.
  • Don’t drink liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar–these actually cause you to lose more body fluid. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.
  • Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library–even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat.
  • Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • NEVER leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle.
  • Visit adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.

If you must be out in the heat:

  • Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours.
  • Cut down on exercise. If you must exercise, drink two to four glasses of cool, nonalcoholic fluids each hour.  A sports beverage can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat. Warning: If you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage. Remember the warning in the first “tip” (above), too.
  • Try to rest often in shady areas.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) and sunglasses and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels).
  • Never leave infants, children, or pets in a parked car, even if the windows are cracked open not for a second.
  • Dress infants and children in loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Schedule outdoor activities carefully, for morning and evening hours.
  • Stay cool with cool showers or baths.
  • Seek medical care immediately if your child has symptoms of heat-related illness.
  • Just a few serious sunburns can increase you and your child’s risk of skin cancer later in life. Their skin needs protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays whenever they’re outdoors.
  • Cover up. Clothing that covers your and your child’s skin helps protect against UV rays.
  • Use sunscreen with at least SPF (sun protection factor) 15 and UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B) protection every time you and your child go outside.

People aged 65 years or older are less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature. People in this category must be reminded of the following information.

Closely monitor people who depend on you for their care:

  • Are they drinking enough water?
  • Do they have access to air conditioning?
  • Do they know how to keep cool?
  • Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. Contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area.
  • Do not rely on a fan as your primary cooling device during an extreme heat event.
  • Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
  • Check on a friend or neighbor and have someone do the same for you.
  • Don’t use the stove or oven to cook—it will make you and your house hotter.
  • Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
  • Check the local news for health and safety updates.
  • Seek medical care immediately if you have, or someone you know has, symptoms of heat-related illness like muscle cramps, headaches, nausea or vomiting.

This information provided by: NCEH’s Health Studies Branch.

For additional information, contact Shirley Smith at the Hoke County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension at 910-875-2162 or by email sjsmith@ncsu.edu.

Written By

Photo of Shirley SmithShirley SmithExtension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences (910) 875-2162 shirley_j_smith@ncsu.eduHoke County, North Carolina
Updated on Sep 6, 2016
Was the information on this page helpful? Yes check No close
This page can also be accessed from: go.ncsu.edu/readext?366514