Heat wave spurs many to seek relief in ER 

Emergency rooms fill with heat-related maladies 2:47

The unrelenting high temperatures in the East and Midwest are taking a toll, sending some to emergency rooms and others on desperate searches for ways to cool off.

It’s easy to get dangerously overheated and dehydrated in this weather, health and public safety officials say.

In fact, heat is one of the leading weather-related killers in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the heat wave of 1980, for example, more than 1,250 people died from the heat, according to NOAA. And during the heat wave of 1995, there were more than 700 heat-related deaths in the Chicago area, making that the deadliest weather event in that city's history.

While the hot weather is hard on everybody, it’s toughest on those who have to work outside, including people like Joe Decker, a New York firefighter. As Decker dons the 85 pounds of firefighter’s gear he wears for work, it’s easy to see why he’s getting overheated.

Early this morning, Engine 221 was called to a three-alarm blaze in Brooklyn. When it's hot, more firefighters than normal are needed to fight a blaze.

Jermaine Lumpkin, of D&J Amusements, towels himself off while setting up for Des Plaines Summer Fling in the heat Thursday, July 18, 2013. (AP Photo/D...
Jermaine Lumpkin, of D&J Amusements, towels himself off while setting up for Des Plaines, Ill., Summer Fling in the heat Thursday. Bob Chwedyk

“In the heat we have to rotate more frequently,” New York Fire Department Chief Michael Brown told NBC News.

ERs in many cities are seeing the impact of five days of temperatures soaring above 90 degrees. More than half of the paramedic calls at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx have been heat-related this week.

“It builds on you and your body isn't used to that 100-degree weather and all of a sudden it comes out of nowhere and you pass out,” paramedic Chris Chan told NBC News.

In Philadelphia, the overheated and under-hydrated are only starting to trickle in, but doctors there expect the numbers to rise by this weekend.

“In general people show up in the ER four to five days after a heat wave starts,” said Dr. David Lambert, medical director of the Emergency Department Observation Unit at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

“Right now, what we’re seeing most is people who have to work outside, who weren’t keeping hydrated enough. If you don’t keep up with your fluids, you can get heat exhaustion,” Lambert said.

Folks who don’t work outside, but still can’t get cool enough or hydrated enough will start to show up later. That can include people who don’t have access to air conditioning.

While the elderly are often hit hard by the heat, Lambert said he sees a lot of young and middle-aged people in the ER. Some don’t realize just how much fluid they need to take in during the hot weather, while others don’t realize that medications and other chemicals can complicate the issue. Beta blockers, for example, can slow the heart making it hard for the body to cool. Too much caffeine can make it hard for the body to hang on to fluids.

The best way to know whether you’re getting dehydrated is to look at your urine, Lambert said. “If it’s getting darker, that’s a sign you’re getting dehydrated,” he explained.