May 24, 2012

Despite the fact that most heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, a significant number of people die and suffer from extreme heat events every year in the U.S., say health officials. In anticipation of the upcoming hot weather, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has released the Minnesota Extreme Heat Toolkit to help local public health agencies better prepare for extreme heat events and to help inform the public about steps they can take to avoid heat-related illnesses.

From 1979 to 2003, more people in the U.S. died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. "Extreme heat events do not typically make the news headlines compared to other extreme weather events and they do not leave a lasting trail of infrastructure damage that continuously reminds people of their impact," said Kristin Raab, MDH climate change coordinator. "That is why extreme heat events have been called the 'silent killers.' " Yet, almost all of the negative health outcomes from extreme heat can be prevented by ensuring that the public stays cool and hydrated during an extreme heat event. 

The Toolkit contains background information on Minnesota climate trends, public health concerns related to extreme heat, and recommended steps to help prepare for and respond to extreme heat. In addition to the Toolkit, MDH has created a training module for extreme heat and provided tools for mapping vulnerable populations. The Toolkit was created with the help of many agencies, including the City of Minneapolis, Olmsted County, the University of Minnesota, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Data show that Minnesota is getting hotter and more humid, which may increase the number of extreme heat events. Trends assessed by the State Climatology Office suggest that Minnesota's average temperature is increasing and the number of days with a dew point temperature greater than or equal to 70°F may be increasing. People accustomed to Midwestern climates often begin to feel uncomfortable when the dew point temperature reaches between 65 and 69°F and most consider dew points above 75°F extremely uncomfortable or oppressive. On July 19, 2011, the dew point temperature reached 82°F in the Twin Cities. On that same day, the state record dew point temperature was reached in Moorhead, Minnesota with a dew point temperature of 88°F. The only other spot in the Western Hemisphere with a dew point temperature in the 80s that day was in the Amazon Jungle in South America.

Extreme heat events can cause a range of health problems from relatively minor health issues, such as a heat rash, to life-threatening conditions, such as heat stroke and ultimately death. Heat exhaustion is the most common heat-related illness. Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, thirst, fatigue, headache, nausea, visual disturbances, weakness, anxiety, confusion, and vomiting. Untreated heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, which can be fatal. Symptoms of heat stroke include an extremely high body temperature (above 103°F); red, hot, and dry skin; rapid breathing; racing heart rate; headache; nausea; confusion; and unconsciousness.

While everyone is susceptible to illnesses due to extreme heat, certain populations may be especially vulnerable to health effects from extreme heat events, including people with pre-existing medical conditions, the very young (less than 5 years old), the elderly (older than 65), the poor and homeless, and obese individuals. Other things that can increase the risk from extreme heat events include living alone (especially the elderly), having prolonged exposure to the sun (construction workers), consuming alcohol, living in an urban area (heat island effect), not having access to air conditioning, and living in a top floor apartment.

"While we Minnesotans are very skilled at dealing with our cold winters," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, "we often do not do very well in managing extreme heat. There are things you can do to stay safe during very hot weather." The following steps can help reduce the risk of health problems during an extreme heat event:

  •  Use air conditioning or spend time in air-conditioned locations.
  • Take a cool bath or shower.
  • Minimize direct exposure to the sun.
  • Limit your time outdoors as much as possible; take frequent breaks if you must be outside.
  • Stay hydrated – drink water or nonalcoholic fluids.
  • Wear loose fitting, light-colored clothes.
  • Check on your neighbors, friends and family members – especially those who are older and /or with health issues.
  • Do not leave children or pets unattended in a vehicle, even with the windows rolled down, even for a few minutes.

For additional information from MDH on responding to extreme heat events, see the MDH Climate Change website at: or the MDH Office of Emergency Preparedness website at:

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