High temperatures will stay above 90 across much of the U.S. this week, and storms in the mid-Atlantic region have added power outages for millions already sweltering from the heat. Oh, did we mention there are fires blazing in the West?
While these disastrous situations can cause problems for even the healthiest among us, they can wreak havoc for those managing chronic illnesses. But a little bit of preparation and planning can help keep everybody feeling good despite a challenging environment.
All of the basics for staying healthy in the heat still apply -- staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water (you should be sweating), avoiding prime heat hours by going outside only early or late in the day, and dressing for the heat by wearing lightweight and light-colored clothing.
"The primary issue is to keep cool," says Dr. David Seaburg, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. He says that during the summer many people end up in the emergency room because they haven't had enough fluids, and they haven't taken breaks from the sun and heat. That can result in heat stroke, which begins when the core body temperature reaches 104.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency resulting when the body isn't able to properly cool itself. Symptoms include headache, nausea, lack of sweating, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, seizures and unconsciousness.
Seaburg explains that many people with chronic illnesses -- including endocrine patients, people on certain heart medications and some cancer patients -- need to be especially aware that their bodies may not properly regulate temperature in high heat situations. The elderly also fall into this special group because their bodies have more trouble keeping them cool. He recommends heading to a community center that may have a backup generator to offer a cool respite.
And if you're headed outdoors for the Fourth of July, be aware of what you're drinking. Seaburg stresses the importance of drinking additional water if you are consuming dehydrating alcoholic beverages.
Managing your medications
When power goes out, the elderly and chronically ill also need to take note of their medications. Seaburg says that most prescription drugs will be fine in the heat, but insulin and some liquid medications may require cooling. Lunch bags containing a cool pack are a good option for those products.
For people who are facing evacuation due to power loss, wildfires or other natural disasters, its important to have a record -- either a piece of paper or a computer accessible file -- that contains the names and dosage information of your prescription drugs. That's something that ideally should be prepared in advance.
Dr. David Ross, a Colorado Springs, Colorado, emergency physician, says that he has seen evacuees of the Waldo Canyon fire show up at community centers without any of their prescription medications or supplies. He notes that diabetics need to carry their insulin and other medications, as well as have a supply of snacks.
Ross also suggests that people have an emergency one-month supply of prescription medications, so they will not be caught short-handed.
And Seaburg adds, "If you have a chronic illness or take prescription medications and you are evacuated or choose to go to a community center, make someone aware that you have a medical condition, so they will know what to check for if your behavior seems a little unusual."
Another consideration during a loss of power or excessive heat is for patients with chronic breathing problems. Seaburg explains that extreme heat may increase a person's metabolism, so patients who require supplemental oxygen may use more oxygen than usual.
People who require CPAP or BiPAP devices for sleep apnea or other sleep issues will need an alternative source of power to use their devices. There are options available for most machines, including CPAP battery packs, DC power options, marine battery adapters, and travel-specific CPAP machines, to provide power in the event of an electrical outage.
Keeping food at a healthy temperature may be a challenge during warm weather or during a power loss. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers tips for safety during a national disaster.
Refrigerators keep dairy products, meat, fish, poultry and eggs at a healthy temperature if they are 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If your power goes out, your refrigerator will stay at the proper temperature for about four hours if it's unopened. Placing ice bags or dry ice will help to maintain healthy cooling.
A full freezer will remain cool for about 48 hours, or for about 24 hours if half full. It's a good idea to have digital thermometers on hand to check the temperature.
Once the thermometer goes above the recommended temperature, avoid eating any dairy products, meat, fish, poultry or eggs. Throw away items that have been compromised.
The USDA suggests keeping a supply of canned and packaged foods that do not require refrigeration. Coolers are a good solution if your power will be on within 24 hours. And knowing where to purchase ice and dry ice is a good way to plan for an emergency.
For more information, go to the American College of Emergency Physicians site: http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/.