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While heat waves may seem more like an unpleasant aspect of summertime than a natural disaster, these excessive periods of hot weather are actually one of the most dangerous weather-related problems throughout North America. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in an average year, about 175 Americans die as a direct result of summer heat, making heat waves second only to cold winter weather on the list of most dangerous natural hazards.
Each summer, one or more areas of the country are affected by heat waves, and in many regions, high temperatures are combined with high humidity, making hot weather even more taxing to the human body. Fortunately, with a little preparation and a good understanding of heat-related health problems, it's easy to beat the heat and minimize the risks related to heat waves.

Heat Wave Preparation
Heat Wave Recovery
Heat Wave Terminology
Heat Wave Preparation

When a heat wave has been predicted for your area, the following points will help you prepare:

  • Install/maintain air conditioners. If your home does not have an air conditioner already, consider purchasing and installing a room unit. If you already have air conditioning, have a professional inspect your equipment and make repairs if necessary. High heat can cause appliances to fail, and the worst time to have an air conditioner break down is during a heat wave.


  • Purchase an electric fan. Both ceiling and stand-alone fans help keep you cool by enhancing the evaporation of sweat on your skin. While these units don't actually cool the air, they will help you feel cooler in your home.


  • Put up outdoor awnings or louvers. FEMA cites that these simple improvements to the home's exterior provide more shade and can reduce the amount of heat that enters the home by as much as 80 percent.


  • Check your home's insulation. If you have an air-conditioning unit, proper insulation will help keep the home cool during warm weather by reducing the amount of cool air that escapes. In addition to wall insulation, also check weather stripping on doors and windows. Also, use storm windows to help keep heat out.


  • Stock up on bottled water. Dehydration is a big factor in heat-related illnesses, and during heat waves, it's important to keep drinking water or other non-alcoholic, decaffeinated beverages.


Heat Wave Recovery

It's important for people and their pets to tone down physical activity and not to overexert themselves during heat waves. The following tips will help you keep your cool:

  • Avoid strenuous activity. When you must do a lot of physical activity, save it for the coolest part of the day, usually between 4 and 7 a.m.


  • Stay indoors as much as possible. According to the American Red Cross, direct sunlight can make it feel as much as 15 degrees warmer. If you don't have air conditioning, stay on the lowest floor of your home, out of the sunlight.


  • Wear appropriate clothing. It's best to wear lightweight, light-colored clothing during warm weather. Light colors reflect away some of the heat.


  • Have a backup location. If your air conditioner fails or you do not have one, find a backup location such as a movie theater, mall or library with air conditioning and plan to go there during heat waves. Try to spend at least two hours a day in a cool place.


  • Drink plenty of fluids. The human body needs water to stay cool. Even if you don't feel thirsty, keep hydrated by drinking lots of non-alcoholic liquids. Water is best for rehydration.


Heat Wave Terminology

heat wave - A heat wave is any prolonged period of excessive heat and humidity. While the specific definition can vary from region to region, generally a heat wave includes hot weather of 10 or more degrees above the average high temperature for the region, and lasts for two days or more.

heat index - This is a measurement of how hot the weather actually feels, combining both outdoor temperature and humidity level to get a number in degrees Fahrenheit (F) reflecting the severity of the combined weather.

heat cramps - These muscle pains and spasms strike individuals who undertake heavy physical exertion in hot weather. While these cramps are minor compared to other heat-related health problems, they also act as an early signal indicating that the body is having trouble with heat.

heat exhaustion - The second most severe heat-related health problem, heat exhaustion strikes people who undertake activities that cause heavy sweating during hot weather. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness; cold, pale and clammy skin; a thready pulse; fainting or vomiting.

heat stroke - The most dangerous heat-related health problem, heat stroke is a very serious condition that can be fatal. Symptoms include hot, dry skin, a high body temperature (106 degrees or greater), a rapid pulse and possible unconsciousness. If someone around you seems to be suffering from heat stroke, call 911 immediately.

sunstroke - This is another term for heat stroke.

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