Doctors Must Help Patients Avoid Deadly Heat Fueled by Climate Change, CDC Urges

Doctors Must Help Patients Avoid Deadly Heat, CDC Urges

New CDC guidance encourages clinicians to start conversations with patients about dangerous heat

Construction workers rebuild the I-69 Southwest/I-610 West Loop Interchange during a heat wave in Houston, Texas, on July 14, 2023.

Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images


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CLIMATEWIRE | The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is hoping to save lives this summer by preparing doctors for extreme heat.New guidance released by the agency last month encouraged clinicians to talk with patients about the dangerous effects of high temperatures and what they should do if they feel ill from the heat.CDC highlights people with asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes, mental health conditions and drug dependencies, as well as pregnant people, children and the elderly, as being particularly vulnerable. The agency provided talking points for physicians to help their patients understand how hot days might exacerbate their conditions and what to do about it. The guidance also empowered doctors to talk to patients about having access to air conditioning at home and at work, and to help them make a plan for staying cool.“The people delivering care know individual risk factors and they can ask, ‘Hey, do you have AC at home?’ They know what medicines someone may be on, all the things that can really influence if someone is going to get into trouble when it gets hot,” Ari Bernstein, director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, said in an interview.While a community’s so-called heat resilience can often be based on factors like how much green space it has or its access to cooling centers, Bernstein said the guidance is meant “to approach heat resilience from a new angle” by involving health care providers.“If you look at the evidence around who is at risk from heat, it varies a lot from one individual to another, even within the same community,” he said. “We talk a lot about heat islands and areas where access to air conditioning may not be great, but even within those populations, resilience may be different based on people’s underlying health.”Talking to patients about their vulnerabilities before temperatures rise can help them stay safe, because many people with health conditions may not realize that heat can worsen their disposition to illness.While hydrating and staying cool help everyone stay safe in the heat, Bernstein said people with preexisting medical conditions may exhibit different symptoms when the heat starts to affect them. Those effects can surpass traditional signs of heat illness, such as fatigue, dehydration, nausea and muscle spasms.For example, someone with asthma may have difficulty breathing when hot air leads to more ozone pollution.“We don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, it’s just their asthma acting up,’” Bernstein said. “If it’s hot out and someone has an asthma attack, let’s not just give them the inhaler. If the heat is contributing, it is critical to get them somewhere cooler where air quality is better.”The new guidance comes as many localities and the federal government are gearing up for dangerous temperatures, following the record-breaking heat of last summer. There was an increase in the number of emergency room visits caused by heat in 2023 compared with previous years, according to a CDC study. Nearly 120,000 heat-related emergency room visits were recorded last year, with more than 90 percent occurring between May and September.CDC and the National Weather Service have partnered on a new heat-tracking online tool called HeatRisk that can help patients and doctors predict dangerous temperatures and humidity.“We really want these tools to be used before the event happens,” Bernstein said. “So, if you have a plan in place and then you see the HeatRisk level goes up, it’s like, OK, we talked about this, I know what to do.”John Balbus, who leads the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity at the Department of Health and Human Services, said CDC’s work is one way the agency is hoping to keep Americans safe this summer. He noted that Health Secretary Xavier Becerra has also launched an initiative to keep farmworkers safe from wildfire smoke and heat.“So CDC has priority populations with medical conditions they wanted to focus on specifically, and there are other populations that we are focusing on,” he said.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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