Summer warmth and longer days beckon people to go outside and bask in the sun. Unfortunately, being outside during the day’s heat can aggravate asthma, cystic fibrosis, and other lung diseases or disorders — worse in extreme heat. Heat waves are also associated with negative health effects. The NIH further explains that this includes higher rates of cardiovascular mortality. As a result, there is an increase in breathing-related emergency care visits when the temperature rises.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, on average, there are 67,512 U.S. emergency room visits due to heat. Additionally, an average of 9,235 people are hospitalized, and 702 die from excessive heat yearly. Hospitalizations also increase in healthy individuals.
The American Association for Respiratory Care CEO Doug Laher shared his knowledge during an interview with Sentry News. “The heat of the day will exacerbate asthma symptoms. You can hear the news or weather programs announce predicted heat advisories. Poor air quality is oftentimes associated with heat warnings.”
“It’s not just the heat, but the humidity. The combination can really cause breathing problems as well,” Laher continued, “and to be honest, too much humidity is almost as bad as not enough.” He warns that moving from a high-humidity area to the desert in Arizona brings problems such as dry skin. Worse is dry mucosa and nose bleeds that people suffer as a result.
Data from millions of those enrolled in Medicare reveals that hospital admissions during heat waves lasting two or more days. These hospitalizations are due to heat stroke, sunstroke, fluid and electrolyte imbalances, and acute kidney failure. Harvard Health explains there is a heightened risk for hospitalizations among older adults lasting up to five days after the hottest day.
Extreme Heat Health Caution
The CDC reports that climate projections indicate extreme heat during the summer will become more frequent and intense in the coming decades. However, the CDC explains that despite advancements, extremely hot weather events remain a cause of preventable death nationwide.
Additionally, heat increases ozone pollution and the risk of dehydration, making breathing more difficult.
According to Harvard Health, people with heart disease and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can experience flare-ups during extreme heat. People who smoke or vape are also at risk of heat-related breathing complications.
Harvard writes, “There is strong evidence of more instances of suicide, homicide, and violent crime on extremely hot days. Heat may also influence symptom severity in people with mood disorders and schizophrenia.”
Additionally, “people with type 1 or 2 diabetes have a harder time regulating body temperature and glucose when it gets hot out. Extreme heat can also damage insulin, insulin pumps, and glucose monitors.” Carrying diabetic supplies in a small ice chest would help to reduce loss.
Moreover, extreme heat and air pollution could negatively impact pregnancy. These conditions may increase the risk of a baby born with low birth weight or too early.
Develop a Personal Cooling Plan
The CDC advises people to learn how to avoid, spot, and treat heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Harvard suggests planning ahead for extremely hot days. Stay home if it is cool enough, or go to a neighborhood cooling center.
If symptoms flare up on hot days, people must be more cautious about going outside. Try to stay in the shade and find a cool place to retreat if symptoms worsen.
Hydration is key. Drink water and beverages that replenish electrolytes. Note that some electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks are high in sugar, which can be problematic for people with diabetes.
Finally, make it a priority to know others in the neighborhood. Make note of older adults or people with respiratory disease who might need extra help during an extreme weather event and offer help to ensure they have a cool place. If needed, offer transportation to a cooling center.
As climate change progresses, respiratory problems and diseases are likely to increase. Having a plan might be the difference between life and death during extreme heat waves.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Interview: May 3, 2023, Doug Laher, MBA, CAE, CMP, RRT, FAARC, Chief Operating Officer of the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC)
Center for Climate Change and Energy Solutions: Heat Waves and Climate Change
Harvard Health Publishing: Extreme heat: Staying safe if you have health issues; by Aaron Berstein, MD, MPH
National Library of Medicine: Heat-related Emergency Hospitalizations for Respiratory Diseases in the Medicare Population; by G. Brooke Anderson, Francesca Dominici, Yun Wang, et al.
American Lung Association: Tips to Save Yourself from Summer’s Deadly Heat Waves
National Library of Medicine: Medical Diagnoses of Heat Wave-Related Hospital Admissions in Older Adults; by Stephanie Hopp, Francesca Dominici, Ph.D., and Jennifer F. Bobb, Ph.D.