Extreme heat can not only be uncomfortable but it can also be deadly.
The extended forecast for the Brainerd lakes area includes daytime highs in the 90s until Tuesday, June 8, with the temperature expected to reach almost 100 degrees Friday, June 4, and Saturday, June 5, creating conditions that can result in heatstroke or heat exhaustion for those unprepared.
“I think younger people — particularly people who do outdoor labor — often will underestimate how dehydrated that they might get or underestimate how quickly they might start to feel ill if they kind of push through when they’re feeling a little bit unwell,” Dr. Alex Harsha of Lakewood Health System said.
Dr. Tony Hamilton of Essentia Health said, “We’re used to colder weather, we’re not used to temperatures and abrupt changes into the 90s and even 100 here.”
Harsha and Hamilton shared their concerns Thursday about the heat wave expected to extend for days.
“When you start to feel significantly unwell with dizziness, cramps, abdominal nausea, abdominal discomfort or if you’re very lightheaded — if you’re not able to get yourself into a cooler area quickly — things could rapidly get worse,” Harsha said.
Hamilton said of severe weather, “We do gradually get used to it as we get those temperature changes, but we don’t acclimate to it quickly. It takes days or weeks sometimes to really get into that.”
The number of heatstroke or heat exhaustion incidents more than tripled in Lakewood Health System’s clinic (from zero to three) and more than doubled in its emergency department (from two to seven) from 2019 to 2020, according to the regional health care provider.
“Heatstroke is a temp of 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher due to exposure to heat and is associated with confusion or loss of consciousness, lack of sweating and sometimes seizures,” Harsha said.
Hamilton said, “We see a lot of construction workers come in with heat-induced complaints — dehydration, electrolyte imbalance — overheated. The other folks we see on a frequent basis are people who are alcoholics, drug abusers. Their system is already stressed.”
Likewise, Cuyuna Regional Medical Center had eight patients come through its emergency room last year for heat-related illnesses, according to Peggy Stebbins, director of marketing and public relations for the Crosby-based health care provider.
“So you do have to pay close attention to those symptoms and take them seriously,” said Harsha, who specializes in family medicine.
Last year, there were at least 100 patients treated for heat-related illnesses over the summer at the Essentia Health-St. Joseph emergency room, but that was an abnormal year, as many outdoor events were canceled due to the pandemic, according to an Essentia Health official.
“One of the things we tell people is to stay hydrated, there is no substitute for water. Water doesn’t have electrolytes, so quite often for people who are really out there sweating, I tell them to get a sports drink. … For every glass of sports drink, you need a glass of water or two glasses of water,” Hamilton said.
Data from the years before shows that during a typical summer, Essentia Health-St. Joseph would see about double that number of 100 for heat-related illnesses over the summer, according to the health care provider.
Older adults do not adjust as well as the young to sudden changes in temperature, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and seniors are more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat.
“People who are exerting themselves in really hot weather are at risk. But elderly people, during extreme events like when we have multiple days in a row of very warm temperatures — particularly very humid temperatures — elderly folks will be more at risk,” Harsha said.
Older adults are more likely to take prescription medicines that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat, according to the CDC, which cautioned those ages 65 years or older are more prone to heat-related health problems.
“Elderly people who are living alone may get a little bit confused if they get dehydrated or hot and then that kind of progressive leads to worsening situations because they’re not able to respond to their own symptoms”
— Dr. Alex Harsha, a family medicine physician at Lakewood Health System
“Elderly people who are living alone may get a little bit confused if they get dehydrated or hot and then that kind of progressively leads to worsening situations because they’re not able to respond to their own symptoms,” Harsha said.
The CDC lists the following signs and symptoms for heatstroke: high body temperature (above 103 degrees); red, hot, dry skin (no sweating); rapid, strong pulse; throbbing headache; dizziness; upset stomach; confusion; and passing out.
“So it’s very important if you have elderly people that you know who are particularly vulnerable because they live alone that in extreme heat events that you check in on those people because that can save people’s lives,” Harsha said.
The CDC also highlights these signs and symptoms for heat exhaustion: heavy sweating; paleness; muscle cramps; tiredness; weakness; dizziness; headache; upset stomach or vomiting; and fainting.
“For people who are determined they’re going to exercise in the heat, I tell them to get out early in the morning, do it when it's still cooler out,” said Hamilton, who is board-certified in emergency medicine.
Although most heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, more people in the U.S. died from extreme heat from 1979 to 2003 than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
“People who have cardiovascular problems already, they get out in this heat and their body gets stressed, their heart rate goes up and then it stresses their heart, and they have heart attacks,” Hamilton said.
There were about 3,442 deaths from 1999 to 2003 that resulted from exposure to extreme heat in the U.S, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 52 children died of vehicular heatstroke in 2019.
“Heat is life-threatening because your body has lost its ability to cool itself,” Harsha said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also reports the temperature in a vehicle with closed windows can increase by as much as 19 degrees in just 10 minutes and advised people to never leave a child or pet in the vehicle, even with the windows down.
“And at a certain point, heat is damaging to protein, which is the building block of everything in our body,” Harsha said. “And so it can cause arrhythmias, it can affect your heart, it can cause shutting down of your organs.”
For those taking care of someone else, the CDC suggests the caretaker visiting the people being cared for at least twice a day and ask: Are they drinking enough water, do they have access to air-conditioning, do they know how to keep cool, and any signs of heat stress?
The Minnesota Department of Health stated: “The magnitude of deaths and illnesses from extreme heat events is often underreported and little understood by the general public. … Therefore, extreme heat events have been called the ‘silent killers.’”
“People want to get outside, they want to get out and do something … but I think everything in moderation,” Hamilton said of winter cabin fever and the coronavirus pandemic. “Don’t go out and decide this weekend that you’re going to start running a marathon.”
Stay cool, stay hydrated
Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. If your home doesn’t have air-conditioning, contact the local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in the area.
Do not rely on a fan as a main cooling source when it’s really hot outside.
Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until thirsty to drink.
If a doctor limits the amount of fluids you drink or has you on water pills, ask them how much to drink during hot weather.
Don’t use the stove or oven to cook — it will make the house hotter.
Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
Do not engage in very strenuous activities and get plenty of rest.
Check on a friend or neighbor and have someone do the same for you.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.