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CDC: ER Visits Spiked in Northwestern States With Record-Breaking Heat

A city during a heat wave.

chuchart duangdaw / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • June's record-breaking heat in the Northwest led to a dramatic spike in emergency room visits.
  • Men and those aged 75 and up were impacted the most.
  • Doctors say that these types of illnesses will likely keep happening as climate change drives temperatures up around the nation.

A heat dome that blanketed the Northwest in late June made headlines after record temperatures were recorded. Residents in the usually mild Portland metropolitan area saw the thermometer hit 116 degrees—more than 42 degrees above the average daily maximum temperature for the month.

Now, a new report shows that heat-related emergency room visits skyrocketed in those areas at the same time.

The report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that, between May and June 2021, the region saw 3,504 heat-related emergency room visits. Nearly 80% of those happened during six days: June 25 through June 30, when most of Oregon and Washington were under an excessive heat warning.

The situation was especially dire on June 28, when there were 1,090 emergency room visits for heat-related illness. By comparison, that same day in 2019 saw just nine heat-related illnesses in the region. The researchers found that men and those aged 75 and up were the most likely to be impacted by the heat.

“The June 2021 northwestern heatwave had a sizeable public health impact,” the report reads, before urging local health authorities to plan for this kind of heat-related emergency in the future.

“Health departments can develop and implement heat response plans, identify at-risk neighborhoods and populations, open cooling centers, and use data to guide public health policy and action to protect their communities from heat-related illness and deaths, especially among disproportionately affected populations,” the report says. “Environmental emergencies necessitate timely mechanisms for tracking health information.”

Doctors aren’t shocked by the news.

“With climate change, alterations and weather extremes are not surprising,” Sara Andrabi, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Verywell. “Areas used to cooler temperatures don’t usually have the infrastructure to withstand the warmer temperatures.”

Andrabi points out that the real impact was likely even worse. “The data mentioned is limited to emergency departments,” she says. “For this reason, it does not capture individuals who may have sought help in other facilities and is likely an underestimate of the toll that this is taking.”

The fact that the heatwave happened in the Northwest is particularly concerning, Mark Conroy, MD, emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Verywell. “Homes and businesses there are just not equipped with air conditioning and other things to protect against that level of heat,” he says. “High temperatures there can be incredibly serious.”

What Is Heat-Related Illness?

Heat-related illness is a broad term used to describe several conditions that can happen when you’re exposed to extreme heat, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.

When temperatures soar, and particularly when it’s humid, sweating may not be enough to cool you off. When your body temperature rises to dangerous levels, you can develop a heat illness.

“Heat illnesses usually happen when you’re out in the heat too long,” Kathryn Boling, MD, a primary care physician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, tells Verywell. However, exercising and working out in high temperatures can also cause heat-related illnesses.

“Heat can also exacerbate, or worsen, chronic illnesses accounting for even more deaths,” Andrabi says.

Experts say this isn't the last time emergency rooms will have to brace for heat-related illnesses. “As we have more global warming, this will happen more and more,” Boling adds.

Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness

Heat-related illness can vary depending on which symptoms you’re experiencing.

Heat cramps can lead to heavy sweating during intense exercise and muscle pain or spasms. Meanwhile, someone experiencing heat exhaustion may experience heavy sweating, cold or pale skin, and nausea. You should also lookout for any weakness or dizziness.

Signs of heatstroke can also include dizziness, nausea, and fainting. But if you feel a fast, strong pulse, hot and red skin, or confusion those can all be warning signs as well.

What This Means For You

Heat-related illnesses are serious and can even be deadly. Being aware of the symptoms and doing your best to stay cool during extreme temperatures can help keep you and your family safe.

How to Stay Safe When Temperatures Soar

The CDC offers specific advice on how to cope when you’re under extreme heat conditions, including:

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothes
  • Stay in air-conditioning as much as possible
  • Take a cool shower or bath
  • Use your stove and oven less to keep temperatures down in your house
  • Try to limit outdoor activities to when it’s cooler
  • Cut down on exercise in the heat
  • Wear sunscreen (sunburn impacts your body’s ability to cool down and can make you dehydrated)
  • Avoid hot and heavy meals
  • Drink more fluids than usual, regardless of how thirsty you are

Using what amounts to common sense about staying cool and hydrated will prevent dangerous spikes in body temperature and will avoid dehydration,” Lewis Nelson, MD, professor and chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical Center, tells Verywell.

If your area is experiencing extremely hot weather, Nelson recommends doing regular health checks with yourself. “Pay attention to what your body is telling you,” he says.

“And if you’re feeling bad, dizzy, nauseous, or feel like you’re going to pass out, get medical attention right away,” Boling adds.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heat-Related Emergency Department Visits During the Northwestern Heat Wave — United States June 2021. July 23, 2021.

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Heat Illness.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness.