Heat Illness-Related Emergency Department Visits Rise With High Temperatures

According to the North Carolina Division of Public Health (DPH), there have been 1,205 heat-related hospital emergency department visits reported since May 1, 2020. The NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is encouraging people to take precautions to avoid heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses, especially on hot days.

Prolonged exposure to heat can lead to dehydration, overheating, heat illness or even death. From May 1 to Aug. 31, 2019, there were 3,692 emergency department visits for heat-related illness, similar to the summers of 2017 and 2018. Patients presenting at emergency departments with heat-related illnesses are mostly male, ages 45 to 64, and most have been seen in hospitals in North Carolina’s Piedmont and Coastal regions. Common activities noted in emergency department visits were working outdoors and recreation.

NCDHHS public health experts encourage those who must be outdoors during the summer heat to take extra precautions by increasing fluid intake and reducing normal activity levels.

Individuals should stay wary of signs of heat-related illness. Symptoms include muscle cramps, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, fainting, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Children, older individuals, outdoor workers and those with chronic health conditions are most vulnerable.

To reduce the risk of heat-related illness:

  • Increase fluid intake.
  • Take frequent breaks in cool and shady or air-conditioned places if spending extended time outside.
  • Reduce normal activity levels.
  • Speak with your physician about how to stay safe if you take medicines that make you more vulnerable to heat, such as tranquilizers or drugs for high blood pressure, migraines, allergies, muscle spasms and mental illness.
  • Check on neighbors, and if working outdoors, check on your co-workers.
  • Never leave children or pets unattended in vehicles, especially during warm or hot weather, as temperature levels inside a car can reach a deadly level in a matter of minutes.

High heat days may also be poor air quality days, which can pose an additional threat to those living with chronic health conditions, older adults and children. Air quality information can be found at xapps.ncdenr.org/aq/ForecastCenterEnvista.

There may be cooling assistance available for those who are eligible:

  • The Crisis Intervention Program is a federally funded program that assists individuals and families who are experiencing a heating or cooling related crisis. Check eligibility and apply by contacting your local Department of Social Services until June 30, 2021.
  • Operation Fan Heat Relief is a summer program intended to provide a more comfortable living environment and reduce heat related illnesses for older adults and adults with disabilities. The program runs through Oct. 31, 2020. For more information, call your local Area Agency on AgingOpen PDF.

Each week, staff in NC DPH’s Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology Branch compile and publish the North Carolina Heat Report. The report shows statewide heat-related illness patterns and daily maximum heat indices averaged for location of heat-related illness emergency department visits. The indices reflect the levels of comfort — or discomfort — related to heat and humidity and the danger of hot summer temperatures.

The heat report describes the number of emergency department visits as reported by NC DETECT, the state’s Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool. The statewide surveillance system was created in 2004 by DPH in collaboration with the Carolina Center for Health Informatics in the UNC Department of Emergency Medicine.