Summer’s official start is ushering in forecast highs near the century mark for later this week — a sign to take precautions against heat-related illnesses.

Heat can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2003, there were more than 3,400 heat-related deaths nationwide.

In Arkansas, 17 deaths were attributed to the heat last year, according to the state Health Department.

According to NOAA, heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S., taking more lives each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. During the heat wave of 1980, 1,250 people died and 15 years later, another heat wave claimed more than 700 lives. See NOAA’s heat hazards page.

“During hot weather, Arkansans are at risk for four types of heat-related illnesses: heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke,” said Lisa Washburn, assistant professor-health for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “Of those, heat stroke is the most serious and can be life-threatening.”

Sweat is the body’s cooling system, but during high heat, and especially when the humidity is high, sweating isn’t enough and body temperatures can rise to dangerous levels. Most heat illnesses occur from being out in the heat for too long.

Certain groups are at a higher risk of heat-related illnesses including the very young, the very old, people taking certain medications or having certain medical conditions. Others are at risk due to their occupation, such as farmers and construction workers who are outside in unshaded areas, and foresters who, while working in shade, are also working in a very high-humidity environment.

If you have to be in the heat, Washburn recommends:

Drinking more fluids, regardless of activity level. Don’t wait to feel thirsty to drink. Don’t drink liquids containing caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar because they can cause more fluid loss. Avoid very cold drinks. They can cause stomach cramps. Those on fluid-restricted diets or who take water pills should ask their doctor how much fluid to drink when it’s hot.
Resting often in a shady area.

Wearing lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing; a wide-brimmed hat; sunglasses; and sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher.
Air conditioning is the best defense against heat-related illnesses. Electric fans are helpful, but when temperatures rise above 90 degrees they won’t prevent heat-related illnesses. Those without air conditioning should consider visiting a public place like a library or a shopping mall to cool off. Just a few hours a day of air conditioning can reduce the risk of heat-related illness, Washburn said.

The National Weather Service issues excessive heat outlooks, watches and warnings to help people prepare or take appropriate action to prevent heat-related illnesses or death.

To learn more about health, contact your county extension office, or visit

The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, marital or veteran status, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.