The Needham Bank thermometer registered Wednesday's high temperature./ Credit: Needham Observer

Heat waves like the one this week are occurring with greater frequency, intensity and duration. While our mid-90-degree temperatures are not as high as those in some Southern states, the Northeast is not as well adapted physiologically, culturally and behaviorally to this type of heat, said Dr. Caleb Dresser, an emergency department physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham.

“We need to be taking steps to prepare our society long term for increasingly hot weather resulting from climate change,” said Dresser, who is also an instructor in environmental health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and assistant director of the Climate and Human Health Fellowship at BID Needham.

Dresser leads projects focused on adapting to hot weather and heat waves at the scale of primary care clinics and in communities, working with partners to develop and test resources that can help doctors and nurses working with patients and helping them stay safe during hot weather.

“People have looked at data across the country and around the world, and we see basically the same thing everywhere: In very hot weather more people come to the emergency department because more people are experiencing health impacts from heat,” he said. In Needham, “We treat patients with heat stroke every summer, we treat patients with heat exhaustion every summer. We encourage people who are having medical emergency symptoms related to heat to get properly evaluated.”

Heat exhaustion is a condition people can experience when they get dehydrated and run out of electrolytes. “People with heat exhaustion are awake and talking, but they feel terrible,” said Dresser. “They have nausea, they may be sweaty or feel faint. It’s really important to get them into a cool environment and get rehydrated.” Those who are younger and healthy may be able to do this at home, but for people who are older or who have medical complications they may need hospital care.

The more serious heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency in which minutes matter, Dresser emphasized. “Heat stroke happens when the body overheats, which can cause permanent damage to the brain and other internal organs if it’s not treated immediately. People who are experiencing heat stroke experience brain function abnormalities related to their brain not working properly. So that can include confusion, slurred speech, it may even mean that they go unconscious.” He said people in this situation need to get to a hospital as soon as possible.

Dresser encourages people to check on others during hot days, especially those who may not have air conditioning or who live alone. The main thing, he said, is to be prepared. “The first thing to do is make a plan, and that means understanding that heat is coming and that it’s dangerous, and then figure out what you’re going to do ahead of time.” He stressed the importance of staying hydrated, dressing in light, loose-fitting clothing, and if you must be outdoors, take rest breaks in the shade to cool down. “Take advantage of opportunities in the community to stay cool and safe,” he said. “The single best thing people can do is spend time in cool areas.”

The town and the Charles River Y have made facilities available this week for residents needing a cool place. Today and tomorrow the Center at the Heights will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., the Needham library from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the Charles River Y from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The splash pad at the Rosemary Recreation Complex is open to everyone this week from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Dresser’s work with the BID Needham Climate and Human Health Fellowship involves training physicians to understand the causes and the impacts of climate change on health and take leadership roles in addressing them. 

“When I went through medical school, I learned very little about the dangers of hot weather and nothing about how to counsel patients about heat,” he said. “We’re trying to change that and make sure that the physicians and nurses of today and tomorrow are prepared to meet the needs of their patients in an increasingly hot and dangerous climate.”

Additional resources for dealing with the heat are at the town website Extreme Heat | Needham, MA (needhamma.gov) 

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