A September heat wave is currently rolling across western North America. There’s the typical hot summer weather—and then there are heat waves! Much like other natural disasters, heat waves can be very dangerous. Here are 10 ways you can cope with heat waves and stay cool during hot weather.
What Are Heat Waves?
A heat wave is a prolonged period of unusually high temperatures for a region. Interestingly, there is no universal definition in terms of “how high.” To be considered a heat wave, the temperatures have to be outside the historical averages for a given area.
That said, we often think of a heat wave typically lasting 2 or 3 (more more) days—and generally 10 degrees or more above average.
Heat waves happen when there is trapped air that will feel like the inside of an oven! Usually, the culprit is a high-pressure system that forces air downward.
This force prevents air near the ground from rising. The sinking air acts like a cap. It traps warm ground air in place. Without rising air, there was no rain, and nothing to prevent the hot air from getting hotter.
Young children, those who are sick, and the elderly are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses. However, anyone can suffer from a heat-related illness if they over-exert themselves or simply don’t take extreme heat warnings seriously.
While extreme cold is also dangerous, heat waves become life-threatening more quickly if proper precautions are not taken. Heat was responsible for 1,577 deaths in 2021—a 56% increase from 1,012 deaths in 2018.
How to Prepare for and Prevent Heat Wave Danger
Properly install window air conditioners, sealing any cracks and insulating if necessary.
Check A/C ducts for proper insulation and clean filters.
Install awnings, blinds, or light-colored drapes and keep them closed to keep sunlight and heat out.
Upgrade your windows and weather-strip doors to keep heat out and cool air in.
Have a plan for wherever you (and your family members/pets) spend time during a heat wave—home, work, and school—and prepare for power outages. Discuss heat safety precautions with members of your household.
Be aware of weather forecasts and the upcoming temperature changes.
It’s not just the high temperature. The heat index is the temperature the body feels when the effects of heat and humidity are combined. See our heat index chart.
A home generator is the safest and most reliable solution. Power outages are common during heatwaves because the need for A/C puts too much pressure on the power grids. A standby generator, however, automatically keeps the A/C running, the lights on, food and medicine from spoiling, and medical devices operating.
10 Tips for Surviving a Heat Wave While It’s Happening
Stay hydrated with plenty of water—even if you’re not thirsty. Hot weather causes you to sweat, and it’s vital to replenish the lost fluids or you’ll overheat. Have a water bottle within reach as you go about your day to avoid dehydration.
Never leave children or pets alone in hot vehicles—even for a second. Keep your pets indoors and make sure they have access to a cool space and plenty of water.
Stay inside during the hottest part of the day (10 A.M to 4 P.M.) and limit time outside in the Sun. Avoid strenuous activity and postpone outdoor games and events.
When you’re in the outdoors, make sure you stay out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Wear a hat or even carry an umbrella. Wear sunscreen!
Set your air conditioners to a lower temperature and use curtains or blinds to keep direct sunlight out. If A/C is not available, stay indoors on the lowest floor in a well-ventilated area with fans. Keep shades and blinds closed. If you don’t have air conditioners, place a tray or dish of ice in front of a fan and it’ll help to cool your room quickly.
Don’t drink alcohol, sugary soda, coffee, energy drinks, or other caffeinated beverages, as they dehydrate you! That’s the last thing you need during a heat wave.
Eat small meals and eat more often. Eat food with nutrients (not empty carbs) and also food with higher water content (fruits and vegetables).
Wear light, loose-fitting, airy, light-colored clothing and a hat made of breathable material. Tight clothing traps heat.
Check on family and friends who are elder or more susceptible, especially if they may have lost A/C. If you or someone you know is experiencing heat-related issues (rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, headaches, muscle cramps, vomiting, diarrhea), call your doctor.
If you feel overheated, cool off with wet washcloths on your wrists and neck or take a cool sponge bath or shower. Carry a cold water bottle spray or cooling facial mist with you, and spritz cold water on your pressure points to bring your body temperature down.
During heat waves, tune to a NOAA radio station and listen for weather updates from the National Weather Service (NWS).
Too hot at the house? Go to the library or a designated public shelter if your home loses power during periods of extreme heat. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
We hope these tips are helpful during the next heat wave. Print out this list and place it with your First Aid Kit so you’re better prepared when a heat wave hits.