How to stay safe in the Texas heat

Austin-Travis County EMS first responders carry a 75-year-old man to an ambulance during a 102-degree day in July 2023 outside Austin Wrench A Part in Del Valle. The man passed out while searching for car parts in the sun and told first responders he hadn’t eaten or drank any water all day. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

People who grew up in Texas know summers are hot. For years, Texans have battled blistering heat with cold showers, wide-brim hats, popsicles, pools, nighttime walks and air conditioning — if you can afford it.

As summer settles in again and climate change makes triple-digit days more common, it becomes even more important to remember how dangerous the heat is.

Extreme heat causes more deaths each year than any other weather-related hazard, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Heat can make people weak, dizzy and faint. In severe cases, people develop organ-damaging or fatal heat stroke.

This June in Texas, temperatures averaged around 3 degrees above normal, according to State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Del Rio and El Paso had their hottest Junes on record.

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The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center expects July will likely bring above normal temperatures to much of the state, as will the rest of the summer.

Experts refer to heat as the silent killer because its harm is more subtle than weather disasters such as tornadoes or fires. While some people may be more vulnerable, including older adults, people experiencing homelessness and people with medical conditions, heat can harm anyone.

“People often are unaware that heat is starting to cause problems, and, by the time they’re aware of it, it can be too late,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment.

Here’s how you can prepare for and stay safe in the heat. The National Integrated Heat Health Information System also provides national heat and health information, including heat risk forecasts.

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Prepare for a hot Texas day

Gregory Wellenius, an epidemiologist and professor on environmental health at Boston University, advises people to make a plan for how they will cope with extreme heat — or as he calls it “a personal cooling strategy.”

Wellenius said this looks different for everyone. For some, it may mean staying home, especially if they have air conditioning. For others, it may mean seeking a place that is cooler than their house such as a mall or coffee shop. Other tips include:

Weatherize your home to keep cool air in. This could mean weather-stripping your doors or filling leaky cracks with caulk. Environment America Research and Policy Center has a guide here, and the Department of Energy also offers tips. You can call your utility to see if they have programs to help financially with these projects.

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Cover windows that let in lots of sun with curtains or shades.

Make a plan for what to do in case of power outages.

Stay safe during excessive heat

Wellenius also recommends some lifestyle changes during hot months. He said the important thing is to limit strenuous physical activity in the heat, particularly in direct sunlight. He added that people who work outdoors may consider altering their working times to cooler hours of the day.

“Maybe you go jogging. Try to do that in the morning hours and the late evening hours when it’s cooler, or maybe you can do it indoors at a gym rather than outdoors in the middle part of the day,” he said.

Other strategies for coping with the heat include:

Drink water throughout the day — even before you get thirsty. Avoid sugary drinks, caffeine and alcohol.

Take frequent breaks in the shade or in air conditioning when working outside. A cold shower can help you cool down.

Minimize sun exposure. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothes such as those made from cotton or linen if you have to go outside. A wide-brimmed hat can help protect your face and neck.

Wear sunscreen. If you get a sunburn, don’t go in the sun until your sunburn has healed.

Never leave people or pets in a hot vehicle for any amount of time. Check your backseat before leaving the car.

Protect pets if they are outside by making sure there is fresh, cool water and shade. Watch for heavy panting, a bright red gum color, a fast pulse or an animal that can’t stand up.

Avoid large, hot meals because they add heat to your body. Consider using your oven less.

Avoid stimulants and hallucinogens. Street drugs like cocaine and MDMA can reduce how much you sweat, reduce how much your skin blood vessels enlarge and impair your perception of heat.

Watch for signs of heat illness

Ebi, the University of Washington professor, said it’s important to listen to your body when you start feeling unwell. “The first symptom you’re getting into trouble with the heat, is you get confused. And it’s very difficult for individuals to tell if they’re getting into trouble with heat,” she said.

Promptly take action if you or someone else starts to feel sick. Check in on friends and relatives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat-related illnesses include:

Heat exhaustion: Marked by profuse sweating, clammy skin, nausea, dizziness, headache and fainting. The CDC recommends that people with those symptoms move to a cool place, loosen clothes, put wet cloths on your skin and drink water. Get medical help if you are throwing up, your symptoms worsen or your symptoms last more than an hour.

Heat stroke: Body temperature of 103 degrees or more, rapid pulse, throbbing headache, confusion and passing out. This can be life-threatening. Call 911 immediately, move to a cooler place, put cool cloths on skin and don’t drink anything.

Heat cramps: Symptoms include muscle pain and spasms and lots of sweating. Stop physical activity, go to a cool place and drink water or a sports drink. Wait until the cramps have gone away to continue physical activity. If your cramps last more than an hour or you have heart problems or are on a low-sodium diet, seek medical attention.

Heat rash: Also called prickly heat, this is when small red blisters form on the skin. Stay in a cool and dry place, keep the rash dry and use baby powder to soothe the rash.

Know if your medication makes you vulnerable

One way your body tries to keep cool is by redistributing blood flow to the surface of the skin. This decreases how much blood is flowing to your vital organs. But medications can change how the body responds to heat, said Wellenius, the environmental epidemiologist.

“It’s really important that people taking medications be in touch with their healthcare team, so that they can be aware of how the medications might be reducing their ability to cope with the very hot days,” he said.

Certain prescription drugs can also reduce a person’s ability to sweat, according to Ebi.

“If the temperatures are too hot, we’re not able to cool down, then our core body temperature starts to rise. And that’s when people start getting into trouble, because fundamentally, you are increasing the temperature of your internal organs,” she said.

Some medications might make skin more sensitive to the sun or make you feel less thirsty. High temperatures can also damage a medication if it’s not stored properly, or make inhalers or EpiPens malfunction, according to the CDC.

Medications that could make you more sensitive to heat or at risk of heat-related illness include:

Aspirin and acetaminophen

Diuretics and beta blockers

Psychiatric medications such as lithium

Anti-seizure medications such as Topiramate and Oxcarbazepine

Laura Duclos contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.