Preventing heat illness

  • Published
  • By Greg Chadwick
  • Air Force Materiel Command Health and Wellness Team

Anyone exposed to high temperatures for a sustained period of time is at risk for heat-related illness.  Heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, happen when the body is not able to properly cool itself.  The body normally cools itself by sweating.  But under some conditions, sweating just isn’t enough.  In such cases, a person’s body temperature rises faster than it can cool itself down.  Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs.

Heat is one of the leading weather-related killers.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 658 deaths are directly attributable to heat each year in the United States.  Exposure to excessive heat can exacerbate many pre-existing health conditions, (e.g., cardiovascular, cerebral, and respiratory diseases), contributing to deaths from heart attacks, strokes, or respiratory ailments.

Certain population groups are at higher risk for heat-related illness.  Infants and children up to four years of age are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness, as their bodies are less able to adapt to heat than adults, and they must rely on others to help keep them safe. 

Adults aged 65 years and older have a higher risk of heat-related illness due to age-related changes to the skin, such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands.

Carrying excess weight can affect your body’s ability to regulate its temperature and cause your body to retain more heat.

However, even young and healthy individuals can succumb to heat if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.  Other behaviors also put people at greater risk, such as drinking alcohol, and taking medications that impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or inhibit perspiration.

Prevention is the best way to avoid heat-related illness.  When it’s hot outside, remember to:

  • Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible.  If a home is not air-conditioned, you can reduce your risk for heat-related illness by spending time in public facilities such as a shopping mall or public library that are air-conditioned. 
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing.  Wearing excess clothing or clothing that fits tightly won’t allow your body to cool properly.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.  Staying hydrated will help your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature.
  • Protect against sunburn.  Sunburn affects your body’s ability to cool itself.  Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. 
  • Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day.  Try to schedule exercise or physical labor for cooler parts of the day, such as morning or evening.
  • Never leave people or pets in a parked car.  Temperatures inside the car can rise almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the first 10 minutes, even with a window cracked open.
  • Closely monitor those who are at greater risk including older adults, the very young, and people with chronic health conditions. Visit older adults and those with chronic diseases a couple times a day and observe them for heat-related illness.  Infants and young children need frequent monitoring.
  • Stay updated on local weather forecasts so you can plan outside activities safely when it’s hot outside.

Civilian Health Promotion Services will be offering educational briefings on summertime safety during June and July.  For more information, visit, or contact your local CHPS team.  Comprehensive information on surviving hot weather can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website,