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As overwhelming heat targets much of the US, residents must balance risk between the heat wave and the worsening COVID-19 infection rate.
For example, temperatures in Phoenix, the capital of Arizona and its most populated city, are forecast to hit 118 F Thursday. Heat like that can cause heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Meanwhile, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have doubled in Arizona since July 1, at more than 168,000. The actual number is likely much higher due to previous testing limitations, the Arizona Republic reports.
While good hygiene calls for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, staying at home with no air conditioning may be even riskier for some. Extreme heat kills more than 600 people in America every year, according to the CDC.
Nearly every county in Arizona has been issued an Excessive Heat Warning by the National Weather Service, and those warnings stretch across the Desert Southwest from Southern California to Utah. Large regions of Oregon and Washington have received heat warnings as well.
An Excessive Heat Warning means that a period of dangerous, searing temperatures, even by local standards, will occur. The NWS warns people in these areas to watch for signs of heat-related illnesses, especially heat stroke.
Urban areas like Phoenix become “heat islands” in such high heat, according to research from Arizona State University’s Urban Climate Research Center. Mostly caused by heat radiation from large buildings, human body heat also contributes to make urban areas hotter than surrounding areas. This forces many residents to make tough choices.
"Folks are being put in a difficult position," ASU researcher Dave Hondula told CNN. "Do I stay at home to avoid getting coronavirus or do I risk heat illness or worse if my home is too hot?"
How Do You Know if You Have Heat Stroke or Exhaustion?
Symptoms from heat-related illness range from mild to gravely serious.
Heat cramps are the mildest stage of heat-related illness, says MedicineNet medical author Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM. Heat cramps cause large muscle groups to spasm irregularly during or after physical activity in hot weather, he said.
The final and most serious stage of heat-related illness is heat stroke, a medical emergency. People with heat stroke may become confused, disoriented, or agitated, says MedicineNet author Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD. They may stop sweating altogether. They may fall into a coma.
Cooling someone with heat-related illness is essential.
In Phoenix, the Salvation Army has been operating air conditioned heat relief stations since late May, handing out bags with masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, according to an AP report. All cooling stations have been given CDC guidelines to open to the public during the pandemic.
If you begin to experience heat cramps, stop your physical activity, find a cool place and drink plenty of fluids, advises Dr. Wedro. Then gently stretch the affected muscles. Over-the-counter pain medicines can be helpful for sore muscles, he said, but warned that these often interact with other medications.
If you or someone you know experiences heat stroke, first dial 9-1-1. The person still needs to be in a cooler location with shade or air conditioning, Dr. Stöppler said. Clothing should be removed to help cool down, she said, and cool water should be misted across the person’s skin, too, for instance using a garden hose.
If the person can hold down fluids, they should drink cool, hydrating liquids without alcohol or caffeine, she said. Keep a close watch on the person’s body temperature until they cool down to 101 F or lower.
The NWS offers further tips for preventing heat-related illness:
- Dress for the heat in lightweight and light-colored clothing.
- Eat smaller meals and eat more often.
- Monitor those with a higher vulnerability to heat, including small children.
- Check in on family, friends, and neighbors, especially the elderly.
- If engaging in outdoor activity, take longer and more frequent breaks and avoid the hottest parts of the day.
- Never leave kids or pets unattended in cars.