Dangers of Heatwaves That May Surprise You

Posted: July 21, 2021 1:30 am

As much of the country continues to sizzle in the summer heat, the dangers of the hot temperatures on the body have been put in the spotlight. While most people understand the risks of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, there are many other hidden dangers that accompany a heatwave. Here is what you need to know about what constitutes a heatwave and the risks that come along with this potentially dangerous weather pattern.

Defining a Heatwave

Although some people throw the term “heatwave” around indiscriminately, the official definition is when an area experiences two or more days in a row of temperatures that beat out the historical high. Because this definition leans on historical averages for a particular region, a heatwave in Death Valley will be vastly hotter than a heatwave in the coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest.

Acclimatization Matters

When it comes to how an individual reacts to the heat, one of the biggest factors is how well their body is already acclimated to this temperature range. This is why it is more challenging for those who live in cooler climates to deal with the heat when it arrives. This was evident last month when a record-breaking heat dome set up over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. Hundreds of people died in Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia because residents were not prepared to deal with this level of heat.

How Heat Can Kill

Heat is known to be the most deadly weather-related event in the US. While much of the focus is on the more common conditions of hyperthermia and dehydration, there are also a variety of hidden dangers lurking in the background that could take your life during a heatwave.

Overhydration and Hyponatremia

Some people are so focused on staying hydrated that they go overboard in these efforts. Overhydration happens when you drink so much water that the sodium content in the body is diluted. As this happens, hyponatremia sets in, bringing symptoms such as nausea, drowsiness, muscle weakness, headaches, and potential seizures.

Because so much of the focus is on staying hydrated during hot weather, some people tend to overcompensate and drink too much. These symptoms are often less recognized, making them more dangerous. The risk of hyponatremia is more pronounced in individuals who take medicine that increases water retention.

Cold Shock in the Water

It is tempting to want to jump into a freezing cold lake or stream when you are sweltering in the heatwave. However, this type of shock to the body can potentially kill you. Just because the temperature outside is soaring, it does not mean that the body of water will be following along.

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A sudden plunge into bitter cold waters can shock the brain and negatively affect your breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. This is because cold water steals body heat at a rate that may be up to four times faster than just cold air. As the body reacts to the loss of internal heat, you are at a much greater risk of drowning in the waters. Cold shock can also cause you to gasp uncontrollably, swallowing water in the process.

Water temperatures below 77 degrees can deliver this type of shock to the body, making it more challenging for even the strongest swimmers to stay afloat. Despite how hot you are on land, it is always a good idea to find water that is merely cooling and not downright cold.

Dangerous Water Bacteria

It is not unusual for hospital emergency rooms to see an increase in visits for patients who have been exposed to cyanobacteria during a heatwave. This is because this type of blue-green water algae is prone to multiply when exposed to prolonged heat and sunlight. This type of harmful bacteria resides in lakes, exposing people who are seeking out bodies of water to cool off during the heatwave.

Exposure to cyanobacteria may present with a variety of symptoms. Some of the most common signs of cyanobacteria exposure include diarrhea, cramps, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, and numbness in the body.

Non-Fatal Drowning

Not all drownings result in death. Like exposure to water-borne bacteria, hospitalizations due to non-fatal drowning incidents also increase during heatwaves. Not surprisingly, people spend more time in the water during extreme heat, naturally raising the risk of drowning.

Just because a drowning incident does not take your life, it does not mean that you always escape unharmed. Some survivors have to deal with lifelong health issues because of the event. These consequences include complications such as brain and other types of organ damage.

Understanding these hidden dangers of excessive heat can help you to make better decisions for your personal well-being during this type of weather pattern.