Family Heat Wave Survival: How to Keep Everyone Safe in Scorching Temperatures

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Need to Know from SafeWise
  • Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S.
  • Extreme heat continues to break records across the globe.
  • Babies, pets, and older adults are more susceptible to heat exhaustion.
  • If you don't have air conditioning, check to see if there's a cooling center nearby that you can go to.

The planet is hotter than ever this summer and scorching temps are more than uncomfortable—they’re dangerous. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. Death Valley is shockingly close to a global heat record, with temperatures reaching 128℉ (53.3℃) on Sunday. Extreme temps aren’t keeping people inside, though. Visitors continue to flock to the desert park, posing next to digital thermometers—despite warnings about heat exhaustion and sun exposure.

Whether you’re kicking it by the pool or going deaf from the mind-numbing hum of a million fans (that’s me!), we’ve identified the top risk to everyone in your circle—and the must-know tips you need to stay cool and safe as temperatures continue to climb.



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How to keep babies safe in the heat

Top heat danger: Being left in a hot car.

Babies can overheat more quickly than adults due to their size, immature sweat glands, and slower adjustment to temperature changes. A hot car accelerates the process and sharply increases the risk of death.

Top tips to stay cool and safe:

  • If you’re in an area under a heat warning or advisory, it’s best to keep the baby inside where it’s cool and air-conditioned. If you don’t have air conditioning, see if you can go to a nearby shopping center, movie theater, library, or other public place where you can stay cool.
  • Don’t overdress the baby—they don’t need a sweater or blanket (or socks!) when it’s 90 degrees outside. If it’s over 75, your baby will probably be just fine in a onesie or other lightweight outfit.
  • Keep the baby hydrated. If your baby is breastfed, they may naturally nurse more when it’s hot, so don’t worry about sticking to a schedule. You can supplement with sterilized water for babies who are on solids or those using formula.
  • If you go outside, stick to the shade and limit your outside time if it’s extra hot or humid.
  • Protect the baby from the sun. On top of sunscreen, deck out your baby for safety in the sun with a floppy, wide-brimmed hat and wrap-around sunglasses.
  • Be extra diligent if you take the baby out in the car. Double-check the backseat before you head into the store, and don’t leave them alone in the car even if you’re only running in and out.

Get a car seat alarm to avoid leaving a baby in the car.
What to do if you see a baby left alone in a car.

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What happens to your body in extreme heat
  • Blood vessels expand, giving your skin a pink or red flush.
  • Blood flow to your skin accelerates, making the heart work harder.
  • The average person’s heart rate jumps by 10 beats per minute each time your body’s core temp rises by one degree. An overworked heart can go into cardiac arrest.
  • Increased heart rate can cause a racing pulse and light-headedness.
  • To try to stabilize things, the brain tells the muscles to slow down, making you feel tired.
  • Nerve cells can misfire, causing headache, nausea, or vomiting.
  • Sweating increases, which can deplete electrolytes, leading to muscle cramps and dehydration.
  • Organs can start shutting down if the body’s core temperature exceeds 104℉ (40℃). Kidneys often start to fail first, which can trigger a domino effect among other organs.
  • At this point, hallucinations and seizures can occur, and the body may stop sweating, leaving skin hot and dry.


An associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa told Time that there are 27 different ways the body can fail due to overheating, all of which can lead to death within a few hours. If you notice any signs above in yourself or others, take action immediately to cool down the body’s core temperature. Seek shade or go inside to a cooler environment, rest, and work to replace those lost electrolytes with water or a sports drink like Gatorade.

How to keep kids safe in the heat

Top heat danger: Dehydration and sunburn

Sizzling summer temps don’t always slow down youngsters who love to have fun in the sun. Kids may not recognize signs of heat exhaustion or sunburn, so adults and caregivers need to be extra diligent.

Top tips to stay cool and safe:

  • Limit time outside and sun exposure. If you go to the pool or beach, intersperse time in the water with breaks in the shade (or inside in air conditioning). Plan fun activities or hydrating snacks to make break time as much fun as splashing around is. Switching every 30 minutes or so will help keep core body temps from rising too high.
  • Sunscreen everybody up—and set a timer to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours (or before heading back out after break time).
  • Dress kids in light colors and lightweight fabrics. Loose fitting clothes are typically cooler, and don’t forget to add sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim.
  • Stay hydrated. Have cool water handy and encourage your kids to take a sip often.

Get more tips to keep kids safe in the pool or at the lake.

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Sports and extreme heat

If you or someone you love has to exercise in a heat wave, here are some things you can do to stay safe:

  • Work out, practice, or play inside if possible.
  • Schedule outside activities or games earlier or later when temperatures are cooler.
  • Drink more water than normal and don’t wait until you feel thirsty to take a drink.
  • Pay attention to your body—cramping can be a sign of heat exhaustion.
  • Take things slowly. Pace your activity to start slow and increase your pace gradually.
  • Team up with a buddy so you can keep an eye out for signs of heat exhaustion. You can remind each other to rest, find some shade, or take a sip of water, too!

How to keep pets safe in the heat

Top heat danger: Heat stroke

Animals are at high risk of heat stroke during extreme temperatures. Pets with short noses, thick coats, extra weight, or breathing problems have the highest risk. Signs of heat stroke in your pet include:

  • Heavy panting that doesn’t calm down with rest
  • Gums that are brick red in color
  • Fast pulse
  • Lethargy or inability to get up

Top tips to stay cool and safe:

  • Limit exercise. During hot weather, keep walks and other outside adventures to early morning or later evening when things are cooler.
  • Protect paws. Don’t walk your dog on hot pavement or cement that can burn your four-legged buddy. Stick to the grass if you have to take them out.
  • Make sure they have access to plenty of fresh water both inside and outside.
  • Don’t leave pets in the car. Pets are as vulnerable as babies to the extreme heat inside cars. If you can’t take them with you to run into the store, drop them off at home and come back.
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I don’t have air conditioning—what now?

If you don’t have air conditioning and your area is under an extreme heat advisory, try to find a place where you can hang out that does have it. I took my kids to many library and movie marathons when it got too hot in our non-air conditioned home.

Some towns set up cooling centers for people without access to air conditioning. Check with the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) for information about cooling centers in your state.

Keep your home cooler by closing windows, blinds, and curtains when it’s hotter outside than inside your home. Use fans to help circulate air and cool things down—but be careful using fans if your house is hotter than your body temperature. Because fans only move air and don’t cool it, they can actually cause your body temp to rise if the air is too warm inside.

 

How to keep older family members safe in the heat

Top heat danger: Heat stress

Older adults don’t adapt as easily as younger people to extreme temperatures—plus medical conditions and prescription meds can make them more vulnerable as well.

Top tips to stay cool and safe:

  • Stay inside in air conditioning as much as possible. If you don’t have air conditioning, contact your local health department or NCHH for cooling centers near you.
  • Avoid using the stove or oven—it will make your home even hotter.
  • Drink more water than normal to stay hydrated. If you have medications or doctors orders to limit fluid intake, reach out to them to find out how much you should drink in extreme heat.
  • Wear cool, loose-fitting clothing. Take off socks if you start to feel too warm.
  • If you start to feel too warm, take a cool shower or bath. If you need assistance to bathe, schedule extra visits from caregivers and helpers.
  • Ask a friend or neighbor to check in on you and see if you can return the favor for one of your friends or neighbors.

Final word

It doesn’t look like the heat is leaving any time soon, so stay diligent during these dog days of summer. Check local and national resources for heat warnings and advisories, drink plenty of water, and identify some air-conditioned places you can hang out in if you don’t have it at home.

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past decade. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime and safety reports and spotting trends. Her expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like NPR, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of podcast, radio and TV clips in the US and abroad.

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