How to stay safe in a heat wave

Avoiding summer heat, hydrating and keeping watch for signs of illness are keys to protecting yourself
Tri Hall, 7, runs as his mother Tyii and sister Vee, 9 months, play in the splash pad at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /



Tri Hall, 7, runs as his mother Tyii and sister Vee, 9 months, play in the splash pad at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Rising temperatures associated with climate change are expected to increase the risk of heat-related illness and death, but experts say people can protect themselves and their loved ones by taking simple precautions.

Howard Chang, a professor of environmental health and biostatistics at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, said his team’s research focusing on metro Atlanta over two decades has shown high temperatures result in more emergency room visits for heat illness, dehydration, renal disease, asthma and respiratory diseases, diabetes and gastrointestinal infections, particularly for people 65 and older.

“Global warming is happening and looking at past decades, definitely we’re seeing a lot more of these events,” Chang said of heat waves and the associated spikes in emergency room visits.

Staying indoors and avoiding exposure to high temperatures, hydrating and being aware of signs of heat illness are some of the top ways to protect yourselves and others.

Nationally, more than 3,000 people died of heat-related illnesses between 2018 and 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2004 to 2018, the annual average was about 700 such deaths. The CDC’s data is based on death certificates and is likely an undercount, especially where heat was a compounding factor for heart or lung disease.

The CDC advocates a simple three-point strategy for staying safe during periods of high temperatures: Avoid going outside; spot symptoms of heat stress; and treat those symptoms when they arise.


Experts recommend avoiding the heat by staying inside in air conditioning when temperatures climb.

Chang emphasized that this means remaining aware of weather forecasts and warnings from local, state and federal agencies. The CDC does not designate a specific temperature threshold that presents a threat, in part because individuals carry different risks according to age, underlying medical conditions and medications they may be on.

If you must go outside, try to avoid the hottest hours of the day, hydrate well and wear loose, light-colored clothing and a head covering.

“If you’re uncomfortable, don’t push it,” said Chang.

Experts also urge people to check on friends, family and neighbors whose mobility or ability to care for themselves may be challenged.

“The very young and the very old have less ability to dissipate heat,” said James Ellis, the chairman of emergency medicine at Piedmont Henry Hospital in Stockbridge. “Keep track of your seniors, your parents, your neighbors … because they can get sick quick.”


There are ways to spot signs of heat illness. The CDC divides symptoms into two categories of heat-related illness: heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the latter being more severe and requiring emergency medical attention.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea and fainting.

Heat stroke is when body temperature rises to dangerous levels and the body is unable to cool itself through sweating. It shares many symptoms with heat exhaustion but these symptoms may be more severe. Additional symptoms may include confusion and rapid pulse, as well as high body temperature, which the CDC defines at 103 or higher.

Ellis described heat stroke as “completely different” from other heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion or dehydration.

“It has nothing to do with hydration,” he said. “It’s just basically your brain and your nervous system got fried, and so your internal thermostat goes through the roof.”


At the first sign of heat stress, seek shelter immediately and apply a cool compress or water to the skin to lower body temperature.

If you or someone around you is experiencing a heat stroke, seek emergency medical care immediately. The CDC does not recommend giving fluids to someone experiencing heat stroke, although Ellis said it couldn’t hurt, even though heat stroke is not related to hydration.

For less severe heat-related illnesses, experts recommend rest and hydration in an air conditioned setting. If symptoms persist, seek medical attention.

A note of disclosure:

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at