5 Tips to Stay Safe During a Heat Wave

By: Sarah Gleim  | 
2022 heat wave
These kids in Imperial, California, were trying their best to stay cool at a water park as the temperature there reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) June 12, 2022. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

In late June 2021, an unprecedented and dangerous heat wave enveloped the Pacific Northwest in the United States; high temperatures shattered records across the region, including in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Lytton, British Columbia. In 2022, record temperatures are heating up even sooner, not only in the United States, but across Europe and Asia as well.

The temperature in Madrid, Spain, reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) June 14, 2022. This is the second time in a month the mercury topped 104 degrees in Spain. Other major cities in Europe, including Paris, Rome and London, are bracing for similar temperatures. In late April, temperatures in India soared to record levels, reaching 114.6 degrees Fahrenheit (45.9 degrees Celsius) in Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh and 113.2 degrees Fahrenheit (45.1 degrees Celsius) in West Rajasthan. India also recorded its hottest March since it began keeping meteorological records more than 120 years ago.


The U.S. is seeing similar scorching temperatures as its own massive heat wave covers nearly the entire country. From California to Colorado to South Carolina, few states are spared from the oppressive heat. The National Weather Service says temperature record highs could be set in more than 100 cities.

There are several reasons these types of high temperatures are problematic for residents. First, humans are not used to this type of intense heat. And second, many residents don't have air conditioning, which can make heat waves like these deadly. The World Health Organization says exposure during these particular heat waves can cause exhaustion, confusion or even heart attacks, and can exacerbate existing health conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

But it's relatively easy to prevent these types of adverse health effects during a heat wave with best practices, and if we just look out for our friends, family and neighbors.


What Is a Heat Wave?

You'd think it would be easy to define what a heat wave is, but actually it isn't. Not even the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has a standard definition for heat wave. But Science Direct defines it like this:

These are rare events that vary in character and impact even in the same location. A heat wave occurs in a region when abnormally high temperatures are recorded over a long period of time. These high temperatures do not only refer to maximum temperatures, typically recorded during the day, but also those staying high enough overnight, making the environment highly uncomfortable. High levels of humidity and very light winds, if present, exacerbate thermal stress to people. Thus, although a heat wave is a meteorological event, it cannot be assessed without reference to human impacts.

Though defining what constitutes a heat wave might be difficult, agreeing that they are increasing seems to be easy. The U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report shows that surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1.0 degree Celsius) between 1901 and 2016. And the report shows that the current time period is the warmest in the history of modern civilization. During the last few years, the world has experienced the warmest temperatures on record. These weather trends, and heat waves, are expected to continue, according to the report.


India heat wave
India had its hottest March on record in 2022, followed by more oppressive heat in April.
NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

So what is a human to do? How should we plan to manage in the future when these scorching temperatures become, gasp, the norm? One thing is to have a heat wave safety plan and a healthy dose of respect for the destructive potential of this form of extreme weather. Here are five heat wave safety tips to help you deal with the dangers:


1. Dress for the Weather

It may seem like a no-brainer, but during a heat wave, you have to dress appropriately. Wear loose, light-colored clothing; UV-protective and moisture-wicking clothing are best if you have to work or be outside. This will help protect your skin from sunburn and help absorb sweat to keep you a little cooler. Be sure to protect your face, hands and any other exposed skin with sunscreen, and wear a hat and sunglasses.


2. Avoid Strenuous Outdoor Activities

If possible, take part in outdoor activities during the morning hours, or postpone them until evening when temperatures are cooler. Take frequent breaks in the shade. If you're working outside in the heat, and the activity makes your heart pound or you're gasping for breath, stop and get inside to cool off and rest, especially if you feel lightheaded, confused or faint. Use the buddy system, too. If you're working in the heat, check on your co-workers — and have them check in on you. Heat-related illness can make you confused or even lose consciousness.


3. Stay Hydrated!

Perspiration is your body's way of staying cool, but that moisture loss has to be replenished regularly. If you have to be outside during a heat wave, it's imperative to drink up, even if you're not thirsty. Avoid sugary or alcoholic drinks; these will actually make you lose more fluids. You also want to stick to drinks that aren't super-cold. That sounds crazy, right? But ice-cold water can actually cause stomach cramps. If you're on a fluid-restrictive diet or have a problem with fluid retention, talk to your doctor before drinking more than your normally prescribed amount.


4. Keep Cool

Ideally during a heat wave, you want to say indoors where there's air conditioning. If that's not possible, many cities open up cooling centers during heat waves to provide citizens with relief, especially in areas where air conditioning isn't prevalent. You can also try to go to a public place that has A/C, like a library, mall or a movie theater, assuming they are open where you live. You can wear a mask for COVID-19 safety and practice social distancing.

You can also use fans, but keep in mind when temperatures are in the 90s or higher, fans won't prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath is a much better option. Eat only light, cool foods such as fruit and salads. They're easier to digest than hot, heavy meals, and your home won't heat up when you prepare them.


2022 heat wave
Temperatures soared to 114 degrees Fahrenheit (45.5 degrees Celsius) in El Centro, California, June 12, 2022. Much of the Southwest is gripped by a heat wave, sending temperatures from California to Texas into triple digits.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

5: Protect Those Most at Risk

Heat-related illness can affect anyone, but some people are particularly at risk. If you live with, or know people, who fit into any of these categories, check on them frequently during a heat wave.

  • infants and young children
  • the elderly or sick
  • pets
  • people who are overweight
  • people without air conditioning
  • people who work outside

Of course it goes without saying you should never leave children or pets in a car, as temps can soar inside even with a window cracked, heat wave or not. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests we monitors adults at risk at least twice a day for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and infants and young children, even more frequently.


Frequently Answered Questions

How do you stay cool during a heat wave?
There are several ways to stay cool during a heat wave. Some people use air conditioning, fans, or coolers. Others take cool showers or baths, or apply cool compresses to their skin.