Heat Waves and Heat-Related Illnesses: When the Heat Rises, So Do the Risk

Heat Waves and Heat-Related Illnesses: When the Heat Rises, So Do the Risk

Summertime, for many in the US, is the best part of the year. Weeklong trips to the beach. Weekends spent lounging and grilling by the pool. And in the middle of it all, on July 4, one of the most festive holidays on the calendar.

Summer also brings with it heat. In some portions of the country, it can be oppressive.

Of course, mercury busting temperatures are nothing new during the months between June and August (considered meteorological summer). The hot US summers of 1936, 1980, and 1983 were record-breaking. Short, but incredibly deadly heat waves occurred in Los Angeles in 1955 (946 deaths) and New York in 1972 (891 deaths).

However, if it seems that in more recent years temperatures have been uncomfortably warm, you’re not mistaken. Of the ten hottest years in the US, the top four have all come within the past decade.

Let’s sweat it out a bit and look closer at heat – more specifically, heat waves – and what they can do to the human body and how to protect yourself when the temperature starts rising.

What is a Heat Wave?

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We all know summertime is hot. The seasonality of our climate dictates that temperatures push upward June through August across the US. It’s not uncommon for many parts of the south and southwest to experience triple-digit readings during this time.

A heat wave happens when high pressure creates a dome of air over a specific region. This dome traps air at ground level and prevents it from rising. Without this rising air, rain can’t develop, and there’s no mechanism to prevent the hot air from growing even hotter.

Until the dome of high-pressure moves or is displaced by another weather system, the blistering hot air remains in place.

As an example, let’s examine summers in Dallas, Texas.

Collectively, since the year 1994, Dallas’ average June through August temperature is 85°F. From the chart, you can see that in some months the average temperature topped out a few degrees higher, between 87°F and 89°F. This reflects daytime highs in the city that reached between 90°F and 99°F.

Hot, yes, but not uncommon, even if for an extended period.

In a heat wave, the temperature rises to a point well above the norm, doing so over a period of time. Prolonged bouts of heat can last several days, weeks, or, in the most extreme cases, months.

Again looking at the linked chart, you can spot several of the most notable Dallas heat waves in months where the average temperature exceeded 90 degrees.

In 2011 alone, Dallas saw two streaks of consecutive days over 100°F at 40 and 20 days, respectively, which was part of a two-plus month long heat wave that ultimately saw 70 days scorch past the century mark. Other heat waves in Dallas during our 25-year sample occurred in 1998, 1999, 2006, 2010, as well as another one just last year.

While a heat wave in a warm climate may not be an extraordinary weather occurrence, its anticipated that heat waves in general – and their severity – are expected to become more frequent as temperatures rise globally. This includes areas not typically associated with the sweltering heat of summer.

For instance, in August of 2003, nearly 70,000 people succumbed to stifling heat in Europe. In 2018, a heat wave across Japan was so severe, their government declared the soaring temperatures a natural disaster, with a spokesman proclaiming the weather “unprecedented” and “a threat to life.”

In the US, heat proves deadliest among weather-related fatalities. In 2018, heat was responsible for more deaths than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined.

Intensification of a Heat Wave

There are several conditions which can intensify a heat wave. Should a dome of heat form in a climate unaccustomed to oppressively hot weather – where air conditioning proves the exception, not the rule – residents can endure oven-like temperatures within their homes during the daytime.

A city, by way of endless asphalt, concrete, and glass, may amp up the effects of a heat wave through a phenomenon known as “urban heat island.” The city retains the heat for more extended periods, which means nighttime temperatures remain high versus cooling off.

According to Jonathan Erdman, a Weather.com meteorologist, it’s a deadly combination:

“Overnight temperatures which don’t drop below 80 degrees are dangerous because those without air conditioning can’t simply open their windows for relief at night. So, essentially, there’s no break in the heat at night.”

In other words, you don’t even have to be outside to endure the brunt of a heat wave and potentially fall victim to its harmful consequences.

Effects of Heat on the Human Body

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There’s no question that heat can be uncomfortable. Excessive heat can be unbearable.

Aside from the constant pounding of sunlight or the searing air that accompanies an outbreak of high temperatures, prolonged heat exposure can be life-threatening. Between agonizing symptoms and loss of bodily function, if overexposure to heat is left untreated, it will lead to death.

Here are five of the most common heat-related conditions and illnesses:

Dehydration

Dehydration results from our bodies losing more water than what is being put in.

Although dehydration happens in many non-heat related situations, exposure to heat will speed up the processes that lead to the condition. Often this occurs without the person who is suffering from dehydration realizing it before it’s too late.

In weather such as a heat wave, our bodies will sweat more than usual to combat the increased temperatures. The rapid increase in water loss leads to symptoms both minor – headaches, muscle cramps, thirst and dry mouth – and far more severe – dizziness, nausea, confusion, rapid heartbeat or breathing, and fainting.

Everyone is susceptible to dehydration. However, infants and young children, older adults, people with illnesses or chronic disease, and even otherwise healthy individuals with active outdoor lifestyles are most at risk.

Heat Cramp

The first of four conditions caused by the overheating of the body or hyperthermia, heat cramps develop through an excessive loss of fluids, salt, and other minerals. These cramps may be incredibly painful, lasting longer than non-heat related cramping.

Muscles most often impacted by heat cramp include those in your abdomen, arms, and calves. Individuals who exercise heavily, particularly in outdoor environments, are most susceptible.

Heat Rash

When you sweat, it helps cool your body’s overall temperature. When this sweat becomes trapped beneath blocked pores in your skin, it leads to an outbreak of light, red blistering.

The least critical of the heat-related illnesses, heat rash is nonetheless an uncomfortable condition. Larger blisters may form, and intense itching may accompany the rash depending on its severity.

Although the vast majority of cases clear up within a couple of days, the worst instances involve painful swelling of the skin or lymph nodes, pus discharging from the blisters, or fever or chills.

Heat Exhaustion

When suffering from heat exhaustion, it’s typically the first indication that your body is rapidly starting to overheat. Symptoms include profuse sweating, a very rapid or feeble pulse, dizziness, nausea, severe cramping, and headaches, or increased fatigue. You may also have skin that is cool and moist to the touch even if you are in hot conditions.

Heat exhaustion can occur simply from being in the heat for too long. Its onset may happen sooner if you are performing strenuous activity while in the heat or heat combined with humid conditions (high heat index). Rapid temperature changes can also cause exhaustion, especially for those not accustomed to warmer areas.

As with other heat-related conditions, young children and older adults may experience exhausting faster than others, though obesity can also accelerate exhaustion symptoms due to the body retaining heat.

Heat Stroke

When your body reaches critical levels of overheating, you can fall victim to heat stroke. The most serious of the heat-based illnesses, individuals that encounter heat stroke require immediate medical attention.

When the body faces prolonged exposure to excessive heat, the body’s core temperature rises. Heat stroke happens with that core number reaches or exceeds 104°F. Coupled with fluid loss (dehydration), your body can no longer regulate its temperature.

Symptoms can appear immediately and include nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat and breathing, inability to sweat, severe headache or light-headedness, or confusion and disorientation. An individual may also suffer from seizures and unconsciousness.

If not treated immediately – which involves lowering the body’s core temperature – heat stroke can be fatal.

Final Thoughts: How to Stay Cool During a Heatwave

 

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The world is getting hotter.

Increased temperatures indicate an increase in heat waves and with them, heat-related illnesses. Protecting yourself, however, is a relatively simple combination of diligence and common sense – practically all of which you have seen or heard before:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, and consume more when active or outside in the heat of the day. If you’re in a place with no clean water source, a water bottle with a built-in filter can keep you hydrated in unsafe conditions.
  • Be mindful of what your body is losing when it sweats – minerals – and take care to replace them through sports drinks or your diet.
  • Don’t overexert yourself and take frequent breaks if outside in excessive heat or even when physically active in average, summertime temps.
  • Wear sunscreen when outside (no matter the temperature) and choose appropriate clothes for the conditions – lightweight and light-colored.
  • If you don’t have to be outdoors in the heat, stay inside, preferably places with air conditioning; if you do have to be out during the summer, schedule your activities during the coolest stretches whenever possible.

We can’t escape the heat – experts predict it to become a more significant burden in the coming decades. Knowing the risks of scorching temperatures – and the heat waves they produce – allows you to take preventative measures to “beat the heat” long before it beats you.

What Is Hepatitis and How Is It Contracted?

What Is Hepatitis and How Is It Contracted?

Fear and anxiety often follow a diagnosis of Hepatitis. It’s an infectious disease of the liver, which means it causes infection, often serious and sometimes fatal, in the livers of those who have it. But not all types of hepatitis are equally severe.

If you’re trying to steer clear of it, have possible symptoms, or even have received that diagnosis, make sure you’re fully informed about ways the disease is contracted, how it can be avoided, and which treatments are available for those who have hepatitis.

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis is a general term for disease of the liver that results in inflammation. Inflammation can cause scarring and in some cases will eventually lead to liver failure.

Hepatitis is usually caused by viruses, but liver problems can also be caused by physical injury, damage to the liver from a bacterial infection, certain medications or adverse drug interactions, autoimmune disease, heavy use of alcohol, and some toxins.

In one type of hepatitis (A) it’s not only infectious – it can be contagious too (passed directly from person to person.) But for other forms, exposure mainly occurs when participating in risky behavior (sharing drug needles, alcohol dependence, or unprotected sex) or when hygiene is poor.

Five types of viruses are associated with hepatitis liver disease. The fifth is the most recently uncovered; for years only four strains of hepatitis were referred to. This is why you’ll see 5 different names given to the disease – Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. Of those, Hep A, B and C are the most common types.

What are the symptoms of Hepatitis?

The Immunization Action Coalition, who work in conjunction with the World Health Organization, explains that viral hepatitis symptoms are similar no matter which type of hepatitis you have.

“If symptoms occur, you might experience any or all of the following: jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of eyes), fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, dark urine, joint pain, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. For all types of viral hepatitis, symptoms are less common in children than in adults. For people of any age with HCV (the C form of hepatitis), they are less likely to experience symptoms.”

What are the five types of Hepatitis?

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It’s important to understand the five types. They’re not at all the same. Recommended treatments differ, and every type has a particular level of risk. Let’s look at them individually:

Hepatitis A

  • Contagious, so it can pass from person to person.
  • Usually contracted by eating contaminated food or drinking water (referred to as the fecal oral route), or having close contact with a person or object already infected.
  • Generally a short-term liver infection, resolving within weeks or a few months.
  • Most recover completely but in some cases can be serious or require hospitalization.
  • No specific treatment for Hep A. Symptom relief may be needed for pain, itching, and nausea.
  • Good hygiene is one of the best protections against hepatitis A.
  • Vaccines are available/recommended for people with risk factors.
  • Vaccines recommended if traveling to areas where the virus is prevalent. Central America, South America, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the Far East and eastern Europe.

Hepatitis B

  • Occurs through contact with infected blood, semen, or other body fluids.
  • Exposure occurs from sexual relations, sharing needles/drug-injection equipment, or other exposure to contaminated blood (like needlesticks on the job for tech, lab or nursing personnel)
  • Mothers can pass to newborns at birth or soon after.
  • Most adults contracting it recover, but some are carriers. Can spread it to others after their own symptoms disappear.
  • People infected as children develop long-term infection: chronic hepatitis B. Antiviral medication is a treatment. Can lead to cirrhosis/liver cancer.

Hepatitis C

  • Blood-borne virus chiefly spread by contact with contaminated blood, needles for illegal drug injection, contaminated needles for tattoos.
  • Sometimes no symptoms or just mild ones, but can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of liver.)
  • Can become chronic.
  • Differs from Hep B in that usually only spread through blood-to-blood contact, not other body fluids.

Hepatitis D

  • Occurs only if already infected with hepatitis B; tends to make that disease more severe.
  • Spreads through sexual relations and from mother to child.

Hepatitis E

  • Four strains of Hep E have been identified.
  • Diagnosed when a doctor does blood tests for antibodies to the virus. Diagnosis can be difficult; distinguishing between various forms of hepatitis is challenging.
  • Usually clears up on its own. Rarely, can lead to acute liver failure.
  • Mainly in Asia, Mexico, India, and Africa; considered poor sanitation diseases.
  • Cases in the U.S. are mainly because of those returning from countries where there are outbreaks.
  • Usually contracted by eating/drinking what’s been contaminated by fecal matter, similar to Hep A.
  • Mortality rates for this are low. Pregnant women most at risk, and those with suppressed immune systems are at risk for developing a chronic version.

What are the four strains of the Hepatitis E virus (HEV)?

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The World Health Organization describes the symptomatic HEV infection as involving at least 4 different hepatitis genotypes – Genotypes 1, 2, 3 and 4:

Genotypes 1 and 2 have been found only in humans. Genotype 3 and 4 viruses circulate in several animals (including pigs, wild boars, and deer) without causing any disease, and occasionally infect humans.

The virus is transmitted via the faecal-oral route. It’s shed in the stools of infected persons and contaminates water. Usually the infection is self-limiting and resolves within 2–6 weeks. Occasionally a serious disease, known as fulminant hepatitis (acute liver failure) develops and a proportion of people with this disease can die.

Resource-poor areas with frequent water contamination disease is common in resource-limited countries with limited access to essential water, sanitation, hygiene and health services. In these areas, the disease occurs both as outbreaks and as sporadic cases.

The outbreaks usually follow periods of faecal contamination of drinking water supplies and may affect several hundred to several thousand persons, but some areas with safe drinking water supplies have had some cases of Hep E. When it occurs where there is better sanitation and water supply, hepatitis E disease is infrequent with only occasional sporadic cases.

How do you avoid being infected with hepatitis? What are treatments and are there any cures?

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There are best practices to avoid the various types of hepatitis:

Hep A – Wash your hands thoroughly after using the restroom or if you come in contact with an infected person’s blood, stools, or other bodily fluid. Avoid any food or water that you aren’t confident is clean and uncontaminated. Don’t take chances. Using a personal water filtration system like this one that removes bacteria and lowers the risk of viruses is a safe bet.

Hep B –  There are vaccines for Hep B. The vaccine is usually given as 2, 3, or 4 shots over a 1 to 6 month period. The list of those who the CDC says should get the vaccine is long.

Infants should get their first dose of hepatitis B vaccine at birth and will usually complete the series at 6 months of age.

All children and adolescents younger than 19 years of age who have not yet gotten the vaccine should also be vaccinated.

Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for unvaccinated adults who are at risk for hepatitis B virus infection, including:

People whose sex partners have hepatitis B

Sexually active persons who are not in a long-term monogamous relationship

Persons seeking evaluation or treatment for a sexually transmitted disease

Men who have sexual contact with other men

People who share needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment

People who have household contact with someone infected with the hepatitis B virus

Health care and public safety workers at risk for exposure to blood or body fluids

Residents and staff of facilities for developmentally disabled persons

Persons in correctional facilities

Victims of sexual assault or abuse

Travelers to regions with increased rates of hepatitis B

People with chronic liver disease, kidney disease, HIV infection, or diabetes

Anyone who wants to be protected from hepatitis B

The risk of contracting this type with illegal injected drug use is high when equipment is shared. Practice only safe sex. Use condoms correctly and consistently, and know your partner’s history. Donated blood and organs must be pre-screened for the virus. If required to handle blood/body fluids for your job, always take precautions.

Hep C  –  No vaccine to prevent hepatitis C virus infection. Avoiding risky sexual behavior. Use a latex condom and know your partner’s sexual history.

Hep D –  Since it only occurs in those with Hep B, detection and treatment of B as soon as possible can help to help prevent Hep D. Avoid intravenous drug abuse. Never share needles. Get vaccinated against hepatitis B.

Hep E  – Currently no vaccine available. Like Hep A it’s often a contaminated water disease. Always be cautious about the condition of water, especially in developing countries. Drink only purified water, like that which flows through a filter like this one, even for brushing teeth. Don’t add ice. Avoid uncooked or unpeeled foods in these areas, i.e. vegetables, fruit and shellfish, or other items rinsed in water. Hot, cooked food that is served hot is usually OK.

When hepatitis E is suspected and your liver immune system is normal, you might not need medications. Rest, plenty of fluids, and avoiding alcohol is the recommended approach. In some studies, treatment with ribavirin for 3 weeks resulted in improved liver function (only for those who have severe acute illness, and who aren’t pregnant.)

What is the outlook for hepatitis sufferers?

No hepatitis is without risk. You can see that some forms that are much less severe than others. Even those that are serious can be avoided by making wise decisions to protect yourself.

If you have the misfortune of being diagnosed with hepatitis, arm yourself with all the information needed to either regain your health, or get the right treatment to live the fullest life possible. Ongoing research and new treatments provide hope that living with hepatitis doesn’t have to define who you are.

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