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Extreme temperatures can cause all sorts of heat-related illnesses

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 100 million Americans are under temperature advisories today. Officials from across the country have been closing schools early, opening cooling centers and encouraging wellness checks on older neighbors. We wanted to know more about the health risks of heat waves so we've called Dr. George Chiampas. He's an emergency medicine specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Good morning, Doctor.

GEORGE CHIAMPAS: Good morning, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm good. So who are you most worried about during a heatwave like this, and while you're at it, what makes it so dangerous?

CHIAMPAS: You know, I think that who we're most worried about are those that are vulnerable, that have underlying medical conditions, that are struggling either getting their medications, potentially those that don't have access to air conditioning or the ability to basically modify their activities. And the stretch of this, I think, is also the problem. It's not just one day, but it's been, you know, essentially a week to 10 days that we're dealing with this.

MARTIN: And what about the humidity? Is there something about that? You know, people always say, oh, it's not the heat, it's the humidity. And when they say that, like, why does that matter so much?

CHIAMPAS: Yeah, the humidity is, quite frankly, the one thing that we can't overcome as human beings, quite frankly. The humidity basically essentially covers you. It's like putting saran wrap over you, and you can't basically dissipate or push the heat out into a cooler environment. And so, you know, you try so many different things, whether it be, you know, misting yourself or wet towels or fans so that you can kind of create that environment so that the heat can get away from you. So that humidity, quite frankly, is the most burdensome of what we're dealing with.

MARTIN: Are you already dealing with this? I mean, what's your emergency department seeing?

CHIAMPAS: Yeah, I mean, in Chicago, you know, a big, urban city, there are so many variables from individuals, like I said, that have underlying medical conditions that this is just making those situations worse to vulnerable populations. We have a lot of individuals that unfortunately don't have homes, are exposed to this 24/7 and don't have the opportunity to cool themselves. And just like in the winter in Chicago when we have some freezing temperatures, we're seeing this now on the other spectrum.

MARTIN: So, you know, when we started our conversation, you were nice enough to ask me how I am. I'm fine. I'm inside. I'm in the air conditioning. So what about people who don't have air conditioning or somebody who has to be outside? What's your advice?

CHIAMPAS: This is a time when the public health departments, those that are looking out for loved ones, it's a time for all of us to band together and make sure that we're - you know, we're providing a shelter for them, we're getting them out of those hot and humid areas, whether it be getting them fluids, whether it be making sure that they - you know, someone's running to get their medications, if they can't. It really requires a collective effort here so that we don't have, quite honestly, unnecessary loss of life.

MARTIN: So what should you do if you suspect somebody is suffering from the heat? When do you call 911?

CHIAMPAS: Yeah, it's a great question. You know, there's a spectrum of heat-related illness from, you know, heat illness, heat exhaustion to heat stroke. Heat stroke is when someone is confused, they're altered. And that's actually a very dire emergency, and that 100% is a 911 call because time is of the essence. It's like stroke. It's like a heart attack, where we have to cool someone within 60 minutes. So before that, what you'll end up getting is someone who becomes maybe nauseous, they develop a headache, they feel weak and fatigued and tired. And that's kind of the spectrum which then ultimately leads to heat stroke. So as your body temperature, your core body temperature, is rising, you're starting to get those symptoms that are really signs for you to either get inside, find the shade, start cooling yourself, or, quite frankly, and we didn't talk about it, is if you're out and about doing what you think is your normal events, you're running, you're out at a festival, those are the times when you need to kind of back off and seek shelter.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you know, people like to make fun of some of us who carry our water bottles around with us all the time - bot talking about any of my editors, in particular, who make fun of my big water jug. But is this a situation where you think you should carry water with you?

CHIAMPAS: You know, it's not a bad idea to carry water. I think most importantly is to have a plan. You know, if you're going to have a day where you're out and about, have a plan. You know, make sure you're taking more breaks, make sure you're finding opportunities to cool down. And if you are carrying that water, it's about drinking it, and it's also about potentially using it to kind of cool yourself down.

MARTIN: All right, that is Dr. George Chiampas. He's an emergency medicine specialist at Northwestern Medical in Chicago. Dr. Chiampas, thanks so much for joining us.

CHIAMPAS: Great to be with 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.