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An ER doctor on why you should take those 'extreme heat' warnings seriously

NOAA’s heat index chart shows how heat and humidity combine for dangerous temperatures. <a  href="">NOAA</a>
NOAA’s heat index chart shows how heat and humidity combine for dangerous temperatures.

When the so-called "feels-like" temperatures reach triple digits, the heat can be deadly. "Heat stroke is most certainly life-threatening," says Dr. Hany Atallah, CMO for Jackson Memorial Hospital.

If you live in South Florida, how did you respond last month when the National Weather Service issued "dangerous heat" advisories for days on end?

Dr. Hany Atallah is the chief medical officer at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital and specializes in emergency medicine. He says shrugging off those kinds of advisories and warnings could be a fatal mistake.

"Heatstroke is most certainly life-threatening," Atallah says.

WLRN spoke to Atallah about the effects of dangerous heat — and what Floridians can do to reduce the risk of serious heat-related illness. The following has been edited for clarity.

Dr. Hany Atallah, Chief Medical Officer for Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Dr. Hany Atallah

What happens to the human body when the heat index — the so-called "feels-like temperature" — zooms up to the triple digits?

The difference between the actual temperature and the heat index is [that] the heat index takes into account things like humidity.

The more humid the air is, the less the body has the ability to cool itself. When we sweat, the goal is for the body to try and cool itself by evaporating that sweat off the skin. When it's very humid, that ability for that sweat to evaporate and cool the body is inhibited.

Please define heatstroke for us and tell us how it differs from heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion is when people feel dizzy, lightheaded; they might have some nausea [and] vomiting, but they tend to still be "with it." And their internal ability to keep the body cool is not compromised.

When we start talking about heatstroke, that ability for the body to keep itself cool is very compromised. Their body temperatures can rise north of 105, 106, 107, 108 degrees. And when you get to that temperature, then you really start having risk of end organ damage.

Heat exhaustion is rarely life-threatening. Heatstroke is most certainly life-threatening.

On dangerously hot days, how can we adjust our outdoor routines to reduce the risk?

If you're going to do activities outside, do it in the morning or late in the evening when the temperatures tend to be a little bit cooler. If you're an older person and you want to get outside and do some activity, go to a mall or an air-conditioned place.

You want to avoid alcohol — that's going to dehydrate you. You want to make sure that you have plenty of water around to drink. You also want to wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and take frequent breaks.

I'm often asked [about] people who have to be outside — construction workers, for example. I think everyone keeping an eye on everyone else to make sure that they are safe and that they're taking breaks is a good idea. So make sure there's some shelter and some cold water readily available for people who have to be outside.

Because for people doing strenuous work in the summertime, it's a real risk. It's really important that we take heat exhaustion and heat stroke very seriously.

Copyright 2024 WLRN Public Media

Christine DiMattei