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July 28, 2008

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DHHS Issues Heat Alert

Lincoln – The high temperatures and high humidity Nebraska is now seeing can be a deadly combination, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Temperatures of 90-plus degrees and humidity levels of 40 percent or more put people in the danger zone for heat-related illness.

"The body normally cools itself by sweating. When the humidity is high, sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly. That prevents the body from releasing heat, causing its temperature control system to overload," said Dr. Joann Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Division of Public Health.

The risk for heat-related illness and death is higher for infants and the elderly, whose internal thermostats do not regulate body temperature well. Others who are at increased risk are the obese, chronically ill (including heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma), and people who take certain medicines, such as antidepressants and tranquilizers, that interfere with the body's temperature regulation.

Heat exhaustion can develop following exposure for several days to high temperatures. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, cold clammy skin, nausea, dizziness, weakness, and fatigue.

Heatstroke, the most serious heat-related illness, is a medical emergency characterized by a body temperature of 105 degrees F or greater. Symptoms include hot dry skin, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, disorientation, delirium, and coma.

Anyone suffering from these conditions should be moved into the shade or air conditioning. If heatstroke or serious heat exhaustion is suspected, emergency medical assistance should be sought.

Tips to stay cool

Heat-related illness and death are readily preventable. Here are some tips for hot times:

  • Spend as much time as possible in air-conditioned places;
  • Drink plenty of water and don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink;
  • Avoid alcohol and drinks with caffeine;
  • Wear loose, light-colored clothing;
  • If outdoor activity is unavoidable, slow your pace and take frequent rest breaks to cool off;
  • Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours, if possible;
  • Try to rest often in shady areas;
  • Protect your skin by using a sunscreen lotion with a protective factor of 15 or greater and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt and pants. Sunburn interferes with the body's job of heat dissipation, and too much sun exposure is a risk factor for skin cancer.

Being in an air-conditioned place for a few hours each day will reduce the risk of heat-related illness. Fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s and the humidity is high, fans will not prevent heat-related illnesses. Taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place are much better ways to cool off.

NOTE: Below is a link to a heat stress index.

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