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How to keep safe as excessive heat hits the Midwest and Northeast this week

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's early in the season, only mid-June. But the heat wave spreading through the Midwest and the Northeast this week could shatter records. So how can you keep yourself safe in this extreme heat? Well, joining me now - Julia Simon from NPR's climate desk. Hey there, Julia.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How bad is this heat wave looking right now?

SIMON: The weather - the National Weather Service is forecasting major and extreme heat-related impacts across the Midwest and Northeast. Climate change makes extreme heat like this more likely. A lot of this heat is fueled by a heat dome. That's a high-pressure system that pushes hot air down and traps it, pushing the temperature up. And the key thing here - it lasts several days.

KELLY: Yeah. Explain why that is key to why this could be especially dangerous.

SIMON: Humidity - it's going to make those high temperatures feel even hotter. And one of the particular dangers here is with nighttime temperatures. Temperatures are only going to be dropping into the lower 70s at night, with likely not a lot of wind. Many people don't have air conditioning, meaning that blistering heat is going to be trapped inside their homes. The human body needs cool temperatures at night to reset. So this is not good for our health. Sleeping in hot temperatures really puts elderly, children and other medically vulnerable at risk.

KELLY: OK, so let's get to some tips. If you're one of those people who doesn't have central AC, what should you do?

SIMON: Look into cooling centers. They're open now in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, Pittsburgh. Some are reserved for older adults. Some are specifically pet-friendly. So, yes, many cities are telling their residents to look up a local cooling center and make a plan.

KELLY: Although I will say, Julia, even if you have air conditioning, it seems like the AC starts to struggle when you have these long stretches of really extreme heat. How do we get our air conditioning to work better?

SIMON: Just leave your thermostat at, say, 72, 73, and leave it there. During the hottest part of the day, don't use things that make heat. Don't use your stove, your dishwashers. Make it so your AC doesn't have to do so much work. Shade the windows, and use fans. There's a tip from my grandmother - falling asleep with a wet sheet and a fan and, of course, hydrating.

KELLY: Right, 100% with your grandmother on this one. To that last point you made about hydrating, that's key. I mean, it seems like most of us don't drink enough water just on a normal, not incredibly hot day.

SIMON: We don't. And in this kind of heat, as the body does this hard work of using sweat to cool us down, hydrating is even more important. So drink a lot of water, and then drink some more. Stay away from alcohol, which can dehydrate you further. Also be aware that certain medications can make you more vulnerable to heat.

KELLY: Interesting. Like what?

SIMON: Some medications, such as blood pressure drugs, which millions of people take, can make you lose fluids. And, of course, in this heat, you want to be gaining fluids, not losing them. So talk to your doctor about whether the medications you take could be dehydrating. The main tip here is to avoid going outside in extreme heat. Stay inside with air conditioning. If you do have to go outside, try to limit your time out there. Wear a hat.

KELLY: So bottom line, even if we follow all your tips, if heat-related illness happens, what sign should we look for?

SIMON: Look for things like fatigue, dizziness, headache. A person could feel nauseous or lightheaded. But things can quickly become more serious - things like muscle cramping, an accelerated heart rate, confusion. These are telltale signs of heat exhaustion. If you're with someone experiencing this and they aren't showing signs of improvement, quickly call 911.

KELLY: NPR's Julia Simon. Thanks.

SIMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.