PhotoHere's a basic fact of life: It gets hot in the summer. But even though everyone knows that, people by the thousands suffer heat-related injuries and illnesses every year.

Extreme heat can lead to very high body temperatures, brain and organ damage, and even death. Heat-related illness occurs when our bodies are unable to compensate and cool themselves properly. And, while extreme heat affects everyone, the elderly, children, the poor or homeless, people who work or exercise outdoors, and those with chronic medical conditions are most at risk.

“No one should die from a heat wave, but every year on average, extreme heat causes 658 deaths in the United States -- more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and lightning combined,” said Robin Ikea, MD, MPH, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “Taking common sense steps in extreme temperatures can prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths.”

Rising death toll

A study released in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that 7,233 heat-related deaths occurred in the United States from 1999 to 2009. An analysis of 2012 data indicates that deaths are on the rise.

In a 2-week period in 2012, excessive heat exposure resulted in 32 deaths in four states, four times the typical average for those states for the same 2-week period from 1999-2009. More than two thirds of the deaths occurred at home, and 91% of those homes lacked air conditioning. Most of those who died were unmarried or living alone, and 72% were male.

According to CDC’s Environmental Tracking Network from 1999 to 2009 three states -- Arizona, California and Texas -- accounted for approximately 40 percent of all heat-related deaths in the U.S. Across the nation, heat-related deaths occur more frequently among males and among adults aged 65 and older.

“Heat-related illnesses and deaths are preventable. Taking steps to stay cool, hydrated and informed in extreme temperatures can prevent serious health effects like heat exhaustion and heat stroke,” said Ethel Taylor, DVM, MPH, the study’s lead author.

What to do

Here are sources of information to help you protect yourself when the weather becomes sweltering:

  • Extreme Heat and Your Health Website: This new page collects CDC resources on extreme heat in one place and provides information on how to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths for a variety of audiences. 
  • Environmental Public Health Tracking Data: CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Network introduces new data on heat-stress hospitalizations and emergency room visits from 2000-2011. This adds to the records already available on extreme temperatures, heat-related deaths, and social and environmental conditions that make people vulnerable to extreme heat. Decision makers can use these data to plan how and where to focus efforts to protect the public from extreme heat. 
  • Climate Change and Extreme Heat Events Guidebook: This recently released guidebook for state and local health departments describes how to prepare for and respond to extreme heat events and explains how the frequency, duration, and severity of these events are increasing as a result of climate change. 
  • Workplace Solutions Bulletin: This recently released NIOSH bulletin provides updated statistics, case studies and recommendations for workers and employers to follow in order to reduce the risk of heat-related illness when working outdoors. The report provides specific guidance, examples and it adds to the available resources that illustrate how extreme heat exposures can lead to occupational illnesses and injuries and possible death. 

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