Keep cool, stay safe

Published 9:49 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011

During the summer months, staying cool is the top priority for most people. But when temperatures are at their highest, staying cool is as much a matter of safety as of comfort.

Extreme heat can cause serious health problems, and people should monitor themselves as well as friends and family in at-risk groups to ensure their safety, officials warn.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports heat exposure caused about 8,000 deaths in the United States between 1979 and 2003.

Email newsletter signup

Heat can cause a variety of conditions, including heat stoke, which occurs when the body cannot control its temperature; heat exhaustion, which happens when the body loses too much water and salt; and heat cramps, which can occur in legs, arms and stomach when someone is sweating profusely while participating in physical activity.

Eileen Guertler, director of public affairs at the Virginia Department of Social Services, said the best way to avoid these conditions is to simply stay inside. It sounds straightforward, she said, but doing so can make a big difference, especially for people vulnerable to heat.

“Even just by standing outside, your body is sweating, and you’re losing water and other vital minerals,” she said.

If you are going to be outside, it is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

The Virginia Department of Health recommends drinking two to four glasses of water every hour for proper hydration.

Replenishing fluids is also important, because high humidity can cause your body’s moisture to evaporate more slowly, impeding the cooling process.

Another way to protect yourself from the weather is to wear sunscreen and protective clothing that keeps you cool.

The VDH suggests using sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 15 or higher.

Additionally, you should pace yourself while participating in outside activities, such as gardening and exercise.

Guertler said in addition to protecting yourself, it is critical to monitor individuals who are most vulnerable to the heat — children, seniors and those with health conditions.

She said if your children are playing outside, make sure you bring them indoors every hour to get water.

Also, if you have older neighbors who live alone, visit every once in a while to make sure they are OK.

“If you have an elderly neighbor, do the neighborly thing and check on them,” she said.

One of the Department of Social Services’ most important hot-weather precautions is to never leave anyone in unattended vehicles when it’s hot outside.

“It might be the easy thing to do, but it’s not the right thing to do,” Guertler said. “It’s never good to leave anyone in the vehicle.”

The inside temperature of a closed car can rise from 78 to 125 degrees in about seven minutes, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Children are especially vulnerable to this extreme climb in temperature, because their body temperatures can increase three to five times as fast as an adult’s temperature.

“Being inside a vehicle is like being inside of a hot metal box,” Guertler said. “It just conducts heat; it’s like an oven.”

She advises people to call 911 if they see a child, adult or animal in an unattended vehicle without air conditioning.

For more heat safety tips, visit