During the summer months of June and July, many Mississippians are outside trying to enjoy the warm weather they longed for during winter’s chill. Some are mowing their lawns, many are walking pets, and others are gathered with friends engaging in fun activities. However, even while in uncooled indoor spaces many of these people are at risk of dehydration, which can lead to heat strokes – especially on the hottest days – that send them to hospitals … or worse.
“It’s concerning because a lot of the elderly, especially a lot of our elderly African-Americans, are economically deprived and so they don’t have adequate heat and air conditioning,“ said Dr. Rosilin Wright, who has been a practicing general physician for 20 years. “As you age, you know your body doesn’t compensate as well, so with them not having air-conditioning it‘s pretty concerning.
“We see plenty of heat-related illnesses now,” she continued. “With the temperature rising I’m sure it’ll be much worse.”
Dr. Wright listed prevention steps such as not going outside during the hottest parts of a day, taking frequent breaks if working outside, drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids such as water or sports drinks, and being alert to the body’s warning signs – fatigue or dizziness.
Mississippi summers are notoriously hot and humid. That’s not new. Temperatures are 89 degrees to 92 degrees on a normal day. However, on very hot day the temperatures can rise over 100 degrees. which adds to the risk of sickness.
According to the Mississippi Department of Health’s morbidity records in 2008, the estimated mean number of heat-related deaths nationwide was 688. In Mississippi, there were were 11 reported heat-related deaths in 2007 and 12 in 2005 and 2006.
Science defines extreme temperatures by comparison to a local average, not an absolute temperature, and information varies by region. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the annual average U.S. temperatures will increase by 3 degrees to 10 degrees by the end of this century.
This report says, “Temperature extremes most directly affect health by compromising the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature.” Some effects will be inconvenient; others will be severe. Specifically, the range given is “heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and hyperthermia in the presence of extreme heat, accelerated and compounded by worsening chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes-related conditions.”
Already, the U.S. Center for Disease Control reports an increased hospitalization rate for cardiovascular, kidney and respiratory disorders, and has reported an increase in deaths from heat strokes and related conditions due to extreme temperatures. Illnesses associated with extreme heat can include cardiovascular, respiratory and renal illness, diabetes, hyperthermia, mental health issues and preterm birth. Kidney stones have also been linked to high temperatures, possibly due to dehydration leading to concentration of the salts that form kidney stones, and there has already been an increased rate observed in the South.
The CDC does predict that death and injuries related to extreme cold are expected to decline due to climate change, but the reductions are not expected to compensate for the increase in heat-related deaths.
Another reality is that “heat-related deaths are often not reported as such if another cause of death exists, and there is no well-publicized heat wave,” according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Their report counted more than 1,300 deaths per year in the United States due to extreme heat, and “an average estimate of 65,299 emergency visits for acute heat illness during the summer months, an average rate of 21.5 visits for every 100,000 people each year.”
Older adults, children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to temperature extremes. The US Global Change Research found that “heat impacts are projected to occur in places where older adults are heavily and therefore most exposed, and an increased risk for respiratory and cardiovascular death is observed in older adults during temperature extremes due to reduced thermoregulation.” “The primary health complications observed in children exposed to extreme heat include dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, fever, renal disease, heat stress, and hyperthermia.” Pregnant women are considered vulnerable, because preterm heat has been associated with extreme heat, low birth weight and infant mortality. It is clear that extreme heat can have a serious impact on an individual’s health.