UNC Health Care
Older man standing in a town square, wiping brow while holding a water bottle

How to Stay Safe in Blazing Heat

This is not a news flash: It’s hot. Very hot.

The National Weather Service in Raleigh is warning of “dangerously hot weather” through at least midweek. Temperatures will reach the mid- to upper 90s, but it will feel as hot as 110 degrees.

Extreme summer heat can lead to a range of health problems, some of them medical emergencies. More than 600 people in the U.S. are killed by extreme heat every year.

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion happen when the body cannot properly cool itself, potentially damaging the brain and other organs. Oppressive heat can also lead to heat cramps, heat rash and, of course, sunburn.

Here’s what to know about staying safe when the mercury is way up.

  • Avoid the heat if you can. If you have to be outside, stay out of the sun as much as possible. Take frequent breaks in air-conditioned areas whenever you get the chance.
  • Drink a lot of water, and skip soda and alcohol, which have dehydrating effects. Drink water regularly, before you feel thirsty. Sports drinks with electrolytes are a good option, too, but drink them in moderation because of their sugar content.
  • Dress properly. It sounds like a no-brainer, but light-colored, loose-fitting clothing can make a big difference in your ability to cool down.
  • Be aware of the people in your life who might need extra care. The very young (babies and toddlers) and the elderly are at heightened risk for heat-related illness, as are people with chronic conditions such as heart disease and obesity. Some medications, including beta blockers and drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, make it difficult to regulate body temperature. If you know someone living without air conditioning, consider checking on them or even inviting them to stay with you during the heat wave.
  • Don’t leave any living being—child or pet—in your car, even for a minute. Every year many children and pets die in cars, where the interior heat can reach very high temperatures very quickly, even when it’s not that hot outside.
  • Wear sunscreen. Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 before going outside. And make sure you’re applying it correctly.

It’s also important to be aware of the symptoms of heat-related illness. For heat stroke, you may experience a body temperature of 103 degrees or higher, a fast pulse, dizziness, nausea or confusion. The skin may be hot, red, dry or damp. Heat stroke is a medical emergency; call 911 right away. While waiting for assistance, help the person get as cool as possible as quickly as possible.  Ice baths are best, but if unavailable, ice packs in the groin, neck and armpits can help.  If no ice is available, get to the coolest place possible, remove unnecessary clothing and put the person in front of a fan.

Heat exhaustion is characterized by feeling weak, lightheaded or fatigued, sometimes with headaches or nausea. The skin may be cold, pale and clammy. Move to a cool place, take a cool bath and sip water. If symptoms do not improve, get medical help.


Learn more about signs and symptoms of heat-related illness from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.