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Bay Area Heat Wave: How to Stay Safe During Dangerously Hot Weather

Take me right to the survival tips.

Everyone should watch out for heat – and some of us really aren’t ready for it.

Some people are vulnerable physically, such as older adults, infants and children – all of whom don’t sweat as well as most people. Others are vulnerable because of underlying conditions: people with heart and lung conditions, asthma sufferers, people who are overweight, people with diabetes. (Yes, pets are vulnerable too.)

Everyone Is at Risk From Extreme Weather, Climate Change and Other Conditions

Your body isn’t prepared for sudden heat spikes. It’s possible to get used to heat – but not overnight.

“It takes almost two weeks for your body to acclimate to the heat,” says Dr. Naveena Bobba, who directs Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

You don’t need triple-digit temperatures for heat to be a threat in the Bay Area. Even 85 degrees can be dangerous; in San Francisco, health officials say they start keeping an eye out when temperatures get that high. People who live in cooler climates can get heat-sick at lower temperatures, partly because they can’t adjust quickly. And when nighttime temperatures rise, it deprives people of the ability to cool down overnight – before temperatures heat up their bodies again the next day.

Where you live can make you more vulnerable to extreme heat. When the Bay Area had a major heat wave in 2017, 79% of people killed by heat began to get sick at home. In Contra Costa and in Santa Clara counties, homes that had their temperature and humidity measured over a period of time became hotter inside than out, and held onto heat longer. At night, houses might be 15-20 degrees warmer inside than it is outside.

That’s a problem for people who can’t afford or don’t have air conditioning, says the Public Health Institute’s Linda Rudolph: “When the nighttime temperatures don’t go down, which is what’s increasingly happening with climate change, it’s harder for them to get that kind of physiological rest period.”

Here’s How You Can Cope

DO: Drink lots of water. “People lose huge amounts of fluid from their body when it’s hot. So the key message is drink, drink, drink – nonalcoholic, please,” says Dr. Gina Solomon, with the Public Health Institute (PHI).

DO: Check on your neighbors. “During these unprecedented times, it’s most important that we’re neighborly and that we care for those who may be vulnerable to the impacts of [wildfire] smoke, heat and the virus,” Radhakrishna says.

DO: Take cool baths or showers. An all-over drench is great, but there are other ways to cool down quickly, like freezing a bandanna and putting it around your neck (efficient), or sticking your head inside the freezer (inefficient).

KQED science editor Katrin Snow recommends putting your feet in icy water, or, when you head off to bed, wrapping some ice cubes in a kitchen towel or two and putting them on the soles of your feet. “In hostile environment training, they teach that cooling your body’s pulse-points, including behind your neck, inside your elbows, and behind your knees, can bring quick relief.”

DO: Become familiar with the signs of heat illness. Heat exhaustion happens when your body has lost too much water and salt. You may notice symptoms such as cramps, headache, nausea, tiredness or dizziness. Heat stroke happens when your body can no longer control its temperature, and your core temperature begins to rise. You may have a throbbing headache, nausea, confusion, or hot, dry skin.

This website from the state department of public health has the lowdown, with special sections for older people, infants and pets.

DON’T: Eat spicy food. “Spicy food causes your blood vessels to dilate. That probably makes you sweat a little bit more,” Solomon says. “That’s OK, but then just make sure you drink enough.”

“Eating heavy meals, large portions, fatty meals, sugary beverages, alcoholic beverages and spicy food can challenge the body when it’s already undergoing stress from feeling hot,” Radhakrishna says. “Best to keep things blander, cooler, simpler, smaller portions during a heat event.”

AVOID: Alcohol and caffeine. Or at the very least, know that you still need to drink water to offset them. That’s because they’re both potent diuretics: that is, they cause you to go to the bathroom. “That reduces your body water,” Solomon points out. “You might think that drinking alcohol or drinking a lot of coffee would be helpful, but it’s less helpful than you think.”

AND: If there’s a wildfire and you’re choosing between a stuffy house and smoke pollution… First keep the windows closed. That’s advice from Mary Griffin, a nurse who leads the home care division for the non-profit Institute on Aging. Griffin says to use a filter setting, if you can, on the air conditioner – and use fans if you can’t.

“A lot of people have these air conditioners that are in the window and they’re really not very good when there’s smoke out there, bringing air in from outside,” Griffin says. “So we’re saying use fans instead in the house because the fans will help circulate air in the house and not bring in outside air.”

That may not work as well in extreme and dry heat events. The trouble with fans, says Contra Costa County’s Radhakrishna, is that when temperatures hit the mid-90s, they start to just move hot air around, helping it to become drier, which doesn’t help.

PHI’s Solomon points out that in a battle between two threats, heat-related illness can kill people quickly.

“Air pollution isn’t good for people, but it’s less likely to kill you right away,” she says. “If you end up in a furnace situation in a closed house with no air conditioning, that’s immediately dangerous to your health,” Solomon says.

She points out that counties are still running cooling centers. Alameda County public officials offer tips about protecting health against smoke that include keeping cool in air-conditioned malls. And there’s always the frozen food aisle…

This post is adapted from an earlier KQED story. Bay City News contributed to that report. 

Copyright 2021 KQED