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FOR RELEASE: June 6, 2002
CONTACT: Dick Gunn

Health Officials Offer Tips to Avoid Heat-Related Illnesses and Deaths

Heat-related illnesses are a serious and sometimes fatal health problem. Each year more people in the U.S die from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. A May 30, 2002, Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) report showed that 143 heat-related deaths were recorded in Oklahoma between 1990 and 2001. More than half of the deaths occurred in persons 65 years and older. Nearly 90 percent of the deaths occurred in the summer months with over half of those deaths during July.

Nationally, during 1979-1998, there were 7,421 deaths caused by excessive heat exposure, averaging nearly 400 deaths each year during that time period.

Of those persons who died indoors, most were over the age of 45, while three out of four persons younger than 45 years died outdoors; one child under five years of age died in an enclosed vehicle. About 41 percent of the deaths involved people suffering from other health conditions such as diabetes mellitus, heart, lung and kidney diseases, mental disorders, alcoholism or drugs.

Oklahoma and Tulsa counties recorded the most deaths, 53 and 15, respectively; however, the average annual per capita rate for Oklahoma County was 7 per million population and for Tulsa County 2 per million population. The highest average annual death rates were recorded for Carter (15 per million population), Marshall (14 per million population) and Jackson counties (11 per million population).

“Essentially all heat-related deaths are preventable. Knowing the factors that affect the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather is very important. When the body cannot perspire fast enough to get rid of heat, the body temperature rises causing vital organs to malfunction, and even death,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie M. Beitsch.

“Some of the warning signs are painful cramps in the stomach, arms and legs that can result if heavy sweating drains a person of salt. These cramps are a warning that more serious heat disorders may occur if the stress continues,” Beitsch added. Signs of the more serious heat exhaustion include: heavy sweating, cool moist skin, body temperature greater than 100°F, weak pulse and normal or low blood pressure. Victims may be tired, weak, clumsy, upset or confused, have blurred vision, and very thirsty.

Heat stroke develops when all the water in the body available for perspiration has been used. This may cause the body temperature to rise to above 104°F, and the skin becomes hot, dry, and red. Victims in the later stages of heat stroke may faint or have convulsions and should be taken to a hospital immediately.

Health officials offer the following prevention tips:

  • Drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids.
  • Don’t drink fluids that contain caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar as these cause loss of body fluid.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose fitting clothing.
  • Stay indoors and, if at all possible, in an air-conditioned place.
  • Take a cool shower or bath, sponge often with a cool or cold washcloth, or move to an air-conditioned place. Electric fans provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90’s, fans will not prevent heat-related illnesses.
  • Never leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle.
  • Schedule vigorous activities and sports for cooler times of the day.
  • Check regularly on people at a greater risk of hyperthermia including infants and young children, people aged 65 or older, people with a mental illnesses, or physical illness like heart disease or high blood pressure.

For more information about prevention tips, heat-related illnesses or deaths, contact the Injury Prevention Service at the OSDH: 405/271-3430.


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