What you need to know to stay safe in Atlanta’s heat

Atlanta is well-known for its heat and humidity, especially in the summer. While the heat may be a reason to go outside and explore, there are some heat-related dangers.

Even when the summer draws to a close, the heat can persist into the fall and affect people like high school athletes. In 2016, a Georgia high school football player suffered a heatstroke during practice and died, prompting changes.

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But even with those changes, 16-year-old Imani Bell, a Clayton County student-athlete, died in 2019 from heatstroke during outdoor basketball practice in temperatures in the upper 90s.

It's important to look out for the signs of heat exhaustion or heatstroke and to know what to do if it happens to you or someone around you.

What is the difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke?

The difference is one of degree and severity. If it’s not treated, heat exhaustion can develop into heatstroke. Symptoms of heatstroke include a change in a person’s mental status (becoming disoriented or confused) and core body temperature rising to greater than 105 degrees.

“Heat exhaustion is much more common than heatstroke,” said Dr. Jonathan Kim, a sports cardiologist and assistant professor at Emory University.

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Who is at risk for heat exhaustion or heatstroke?

Young children, the elderly, people who aren’t in good physical condition or those who have pre-existing medical conditions can be at particular risk. Certain types of medicine — such as allergy medications, some blood pressure or heart medications, and diuretics — can also make you more susceptible to heat-related illness.

However, anyone can experience heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Kim said that even people who are in good physical shape and are accustomed to exercising can be vulnerable.

"The most important thing is to recognize that heatstroke, heat illness, is something that should not be taken lightly no matter how healthy you are," he said.

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How can heat-related illnesses be prevented?

If you’re at particular risk, Kim suggested delaying outdoor activities until the heat and humidity have gone down. If you’re going to be active outdoors, wear light-colored clothing.

In addition, make sure you stay hydrated before and during outdoor activities. If you're involved in a sport or other similar activity, that means drinking water every 15 to 20 minutes in hot, humid weather, Kim said.

"Prevention is the key thing," he stressed.

What are some signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke?

If you experience nausea, vomiting or a headache, these are signs of heat exhaustion and are an indication that you need to get inside and cool off. If someone becomes mentally confused or disoriented, that's a strong indication of heatstroke.

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What should you do if you notice any signs?

If you're at a road race or sporting practice and people with medical training are on hand, get help as soon as possible.

Kim recommended using evaporative cooling by sitting under a fan and putting cold towels under your armpits and on your groin and back. Replace the towels with cold ones before they start to get warm. Drink plenty of water, and if possible, rest inside an air-conditioned building. If you’re at home, taking a cold bath can also help.

If you're helping someone who might have a heat-related illness, make sure the person is not becoming disoriented.

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When should you get help?

If a person is still weak and isn’t able to tolerate hydration, medical personnel should monitor the situation. This is also true if the individual’s skin still feels hot but not sweaty, if he or she is vomiting frequently, or has shortness of breath or trouble breathing. And again, mental confusion is a sign that medical help is needed. Try to keep the person as cool as possible until medical personnel arrive.

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