Heat waves pose severe health risks for people of all ages

Abbey Swank

Summer is fast approaching, but so are some health risks college students may not be aware of.

“Older adults and young children are most susceptible to heat-related health effects,” said associate geography professor Scott Sheridan. “But if younger adults, including those in college, aren’t careful, they could be susceptible to those effects as well.”

For the past 10 years, Sheridan has done research on how to forecast weather that is most likely to lead to health problems.

“Heat waves are more dangerous early in the season,” Sheridan said. “The body has to acclimatize, or get used to the heat. Eighty degrees may feel extremely hot in April, but come September, it won’t feel nearly as hot.”

He said one of the less-severe effects of heat is heat cramps, which are related to water loss. A severe effect is heat stroke, which is when the body temperature increases to at least 104 degrees, causing the person to collapse, he said.

Another severe effect is heat syncope. This is when the body gets too warm and it tries to pump blood to the skin to cool off. The blood vessels dilate, and if one is active, it packs blood in the legs, which can cause fainting, Sheridan said.

“Most college-aged people experience heat-related issues when they overexert themselves,” he said. “They think they can do the same activities they did when it was 50 degrees outside, or they think they are invincible. They have to pay attention to what they are doing.”

He said for people to help prevent heat-related health effects, they should stay hydrated, wear light clothing, not overexert themselves and know the signs of heat exhaustion – dizziness, dehydration and flushed skin.

Sheridan has been working with Larry Kalkstein, a research professor in the department of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami, in developing heat-health warning systems.

“These warning systems will help the health departments and weather stations in each state predict when the weather is hot enough to cause health problems,” Kalkstein said. “There are about 25 systems in the United States so far, including one in the Dayton-Cincinnati area.”

The warning systems work by figuring out which air masses have had higher mortality rates in the past and then alerting the city when these air masses are present, he said.

Sheridan said the warning systems are great, but only if people respond to them. He said in a survey of people 65 and older, 50 percent bothered to change their habits when a heat warning was issued.

“Heat is the most underestimated of all weather related health effects,” Kalkstein said. “It can sneak up on you if you’re not careful. College students and other young adults are not immune and must play it smart.”

Contact College of Arts and Science reporter Abbey Swank at [email protected].