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How to keep your family and pets safe in a heat wave

Summer is here and it’s not messing around. Here are some tips to stay cool and safe in a heat wave.
Image: Child drinking water
When very hot weather sets in, you lose fluids faster by sweating and more at risk for dehydration, so you’ll need to up the ante.ArtMarie / Getty Images

Experts predict that this year’s heat waves are going to be frequent and severe. We’ve already seen some scorching temperatures blister across the country of late, and it’s likely that, unless and until climate change is forcefully addressed, heat waves will continue to worsen, threatening the lives of thousands in U.S cities.

Ashley Wood, RN, BSN, underscores that while the elderly, very young and folks with mobility and chronic health issues are most vulnerable — “anyone can be affected by a heat wave.”

How can you keep everyone protected from heat-related illnesses (also known as hyperthermia) including heat exhaustion, and heatstroke? We’ve compiled a list of expert tips.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

The best way to protect our bodies against the heat is to double down on hydration. Sounds simple enough, but many of us are already struggle with staying fully hydrated throughout the day, with a recent survey from Quench citing that nearly 80 percent of employees say they’re not drinking enough water while working.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that men aim for 15.5 cups (3.7 liters), and women should drink 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) a day. The amount of water children need is more dependent on other factors, so, it’s recommended that you talk to your pediatrician. Until then, consider this chart from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which gives a helpful baseline according to age group, suggesting that the bigger the child, the more water they need.

Keep in mind the above daily water intake rule is to stay hydrated in normal temperatures. When very hot weather sets in, you lose fluids faster by sweating and more at risk for dehydration, so you’ll need to up the ante.

Dr. Paula Montana De La Cadena, cardiologist for Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, says that in the heat, you should take a water break at least every 15 to 20 minutes, in addition to whenever you’re thirsty — an indication that “the body is already dehydrated,” she says.

“If exercising, opt for a sports drink containing electrolytes, especially if you will be exercising for longer than one hour,” she adds. “Do not drink coffee, colas or other drinks that contain caffeine. They increase urine output and make you dehydrate faster.”

Montana De La Cadena also cautions against imbibing alcohol (even light beers) as “they increase dehydration”.

Dr. Brittany Denny, DO, an OB/GYN with ProMedica, notes that for pregnant women, the important of hydration in a heat wave is “the most important thing to remember. When using the restroom, mom’s urine should be clear like water. If her urine is yellow, it’s a sign of dehydration.”

Even if you’re not pregnant, your urine is a good indication of your hydration status. Checking to be sure it’s on the clear side is wise. If it’s dark, you know you need more water.

Loose garments, closed shades and backup supplies are a must

Beyond hydrating, the importance of which cannot be overstated, Wood provides the following checklist to stay safe in a heat wave.

  • Take cool baths and showers
  • Wear loose, cool clothing (if you go outside, wear a hat and sunglasses and apply sunscreen)
  • Make sure you have enough supplies (food, water and any medications you need). Heatwaves can lead to power outages.
  • Close windows and shades when it’s the hottest part of the day.
  • Certainly, you’ll want the AC on. Running a fan can be helpful, but note that the CDC says that a fan alone can’t get the job done for elderly people. If temperatures are soaring, check in on your elderly neighbors and family and be sure they’re in an environment with functioning AC (a local senior center should provide this).
  • Stay out of the sun (especially during the hottest part of the day between 11 am and 3 pm —reschedule outdoor activities to early morning or late evening).
  • Cut down on physical exertion, especially if you’re exercising in the sun.
  • Make sure you have enough supplies including any medications you need. In heat waves, power outages are more likely (because of course, we’re all running our ACs like crazy).

Additionally, if you’re on any medications, be sure and talk with your physician — quite a few, as this list from Harvard Health outlines, can increase your body’s sensitivity to sun and heat.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion and how to treat it

The goal of keeping cool is not only to stay comfortable, but more importantly, to prevent the onset of heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion — the body’s response to loss of water and salt. This can lead to heatstroke (more on that to come), which can be fatal.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you'll want to monitor yourself and at-risk groups for these symptoms:

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Low blood pressure upon standing
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache

If someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, they should be taken to the shade (or better yet, a room with AC) and given fluids. You’ll also want to get them to lie down, with feet elevated above heart level.

If an ice bath isn’t an option, try the ‘TACO’ technique

An ice bath is the quickest way to get someone suffering from possible heat exhaustion to cool down, but gathering a plethora of ice in a second can be impossible. If that’s the case, heed the advice of Dr. Christopher Sampson, MD, an emergency physician at MU Health Care and use the TACO technique. For this you will need:

  • Gallons of cold water
  • A large tarp

“Put the cold water in the tarp and have the person sit in the center while several people hold the edges, forming a ‘taco’ around him or her,” says Sampson. “The people holding the tarp then bend their knees to keep the cold water oscillating, or moving, so that it doesn’t warm too quickly near the person in the middle which would create a barrier between the cold water and the overheated person. It’s a cheap, easy way to rapidly cool someone and prevent heat stroke.”

If the person isn’t improving within “a few minutes” of cool down, “they need medical treatment immediately,” says Wood.

Heatstroke is life threatening, if symptoms present get medical help, immediately

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that from 1999 to 2010, 8,081 heat-related deaths were reported in the United States, but suggests that number could be higher, given that “health care providers are not required to report heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion, to public health agencies [and because] heat-related deaths are often misclassified or unrecognized.”

The above symptoms of heat exhaustion should be your first indicator that a person needs help cooling down immediately.

If they exhibit any of the following symptoms, they could be having a heatstroke and need an ambulance:

  • High fever
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Agitation and/or confusion
  • Hot, dry skin
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Check your pets’ gums, limit exercise and cool down those paws

Unlike humans, dogs and cats do not sweat — so their bodies don’t have the ability to self-regulate temperature as effectively as us. You’ll want to keep a close eye on them and limit their exposure to heat (and of course, never ever leave them in the car).

Walk your dog in the early morning or late evening when temperatures are cooler, and never leave your dog in a parked car (temperatures can become fatal in as little as 30 minutes),” says Dr. Daniel Edge, DVM, director of veterinary specialty operations at Zoetis. “Fans and ice cubes in water bowls are great ways to cool down your furry companion. When spending time outside, make sure your pet has access to shade and plenty of water.”

Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with, adds that if your dog requires a lot of exercise, you needn’t deprive them completely, just shorten their walks. “Shaving off 10 minutes from your walk will enable them to pant, and thus, cool off easier.”

Unlike a person, your pet won’t be able to tell you they’re feeling bad, even when they’re dying (and sadly yes, pets do die from heat exhaustion), so be extra vigilant in hot weather.

“Signs to look out for include panting, followed by disorientation and fast, noisy breathing, bright red or blue gums, vomiting and diarrhea,” says Dr. Edge. “Some breeds of dogs — like boxers, pugs, Shih Tzus and other dogs and cats with short muzzles — will have a much harder time breathing in extreme heat.”

If your pet is showing sign of overheating, don’t wait to get them veterinary attention, as Edge says that “heat-related pet conditions can quickly become life-threatening without immediate treatment.”

Additionally, if your dog gets a lot of exercise outdoors, be sure and check their paws for pad burns.

“They can be extremely painful for your dog and can require immediate medical attention,” says Dr. Edge. “Symptoms include limping, discolored pads, excessive licking or biting of feet, visible blisters or extreme redness and missing parts of the pads. To prevent these burns, walk your dog on dirt or grass paths.”

More Summer Safety Tips

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