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Take care: The heat is on

It hardly seems like news that the temperature in Suffolk has been so high for the past week or so. Anybody who has lived in Hampton Roads for more than a year knows that the mercury in thermometers climbs toward triple digits at an alarming rate once the calendar switches from May to June. Summertime might not officially begin until June 21, but it’s pretty common for Southeast Virginia to feel as if the change has happened weeks ahead of schedule.

Still, the first week of 95-degree temps and dripping humidity comes as a shock to all but the hardiest Virginians. And the prospect of another sweltering summer without respite sends most inside, where air-conditioned comfort can almost make us forget just how dangerous it can be for those whose situations don’t allow them the luxury of a break from the heat.

And dangerous is exactly the correct word. According to the National Weather Service, heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States, causing more fatalities per year than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. More than 700 deaths in the Chicago area were attributed to the heat wave of 1995 and in August 2003, a record heat wave in Europe claimed an estimated 50,000 lives.

Considering what’s at stake, some simple steps can make all the difference in the world:

Never leave a child or animal unattended in a car, even with the windows down. Temperatures in a parked vehicle can rise dramatically and quickly.

Always lock car doors and trunks, and make sure to keep your keys where children cannot find them.

Whenever possible, schedule strenuous outdoor activities for the coolest part of the day.

Make sure that at-risk individuals — children, the elderly and those with conditions that can be exacerbated by the heat — should be kept in the coolest area available, and not necessarily indoors.

Wear lightweight, light-colored clothes made of breathable natural fibers.

Drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Don’t get too much sun. Sunburn makes the job of heat dissipation that much more difficult.

Know the symptoms of and treatments for heat-related illnesses.

Heat cramps are painful spasms in the legs or abdomen. For treatment, give sips of water and massage the legs.

Heat exhaustion is characterized by heavy sweating, weakness, fainting, vomiting and cold, pale and clammy skin. Treat by applying cold wet cloths, fanning the victim and giving sips of water. Seek immediate medical attention.

Heat stroke is characterized by a body temperature of 106 degrees or higher, hot dry skin and possible unconsciousness. Summon emergency medical assistance immediately, and reduce body temperature however possible. Do not give the victim fluids.

One of the most important things you can do during the area’s hot summer is to look out for one another. Check on that elderly neighbor during hot days, and maybe carry a pitcher of iced tea to share. You could be saving a life — and you might learn something from her in the process.