It seems like every summer the news is reporting record-breaking heatwaves, and 2023 is no exception. Already this summer, extreme heat has caused heat disorders such as heat stroke, heat cramps and heat exhaustion, and even claimed lives. The serious heat waves we are experiencing are not just uncomfortable – they are part of a trend that has critical implications for our health.
Why Are Heat Levels Rising?
Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere, increasing both average temperatures and extreme temperatures. And as you may have noticed, climate change is making heat waves more frequent and more intense.
“We have warmed up the planet by about two degrees Fahrenheit in the last century or so. That is juicing the extremes, so the number of times places are exceeding 90- or 100- degrees Fahrenheit (32 or 37 degrees Celsius) is going up—and not just by a little bit. It’s gone up four, five, seven times more than before” explained Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
The first week in July boasted the hottest days ever recorded globally, according to data from the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction. And it doesn’t look like things are cooling down any time soon.
How Heat Impacts Lung Health
Worsening heat can have serious impacts on health—including lung health. How does this happen? Heat makes it harder to clean up air pollution. Warmer temperatures make ozone pollution more likely to form, and drought increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires, which create particle pollution.
Ozone and particle pollution can cause a range of lung health issues including shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer. Both types of pollution can cause early death. And millions of people are at higher risk, including individuals who are pregnant, young children, older adults and those already living with a lung disease like asthma or COPD, or if they have cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
Protecting Yourself from Heat-Related Illness
Take steps to keep your body cool.
- Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing
- Drink plenty of fluids, even if you don’t feel thirsty, to prevent dehydration.
- Spend some time in an air-conditioned space such as a library or shopping mall.
- Don’t rely on an electric fan to cool you. Instead, take a cool shower or bath to lower your body temperature.
Consult the heat index.
- Heat index measures how hot it feels outside by taking into account air temperature and humidity. This varies from place to place, which is why you should consult forecasts in your area daily. For instance, urban areas, which feature less nature and more heat-absorbing pavement, can be up to 20 degrees hotter than surrounding neighborhoods, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- Visit Weather.gov and Airnow.gov
Know if you are part of a high-risk group for heat-related illness:
- Young children and adults 65 years and older
- People with chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, heart disease, mental illness or obesity
- Individuals who work outdoors, athletes who exercise outdoors and low-income households
Reduce your exposure on bad air quality days
- Check the air quality in your area by visiting Airnow.gov.
- Limit any time spent outdoors, making sure to specifically avoid exercising outdoors as it puts you are greater risk of heat exhaustion.
- Always avoid exercising near high-traffic areas since vehicles create harmful air pollution.
Reduce pollution you create
- Don't burn wood or trash. Burning firewood and trash are among the major sources of particle pollution (soot) in many parts of the country.
- Walk, bike or carpool instead of driving alone
Speak up to create change for clean air
- Support policies that limit pollution and protect health in your community
- Sign a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency supporting action to limit the greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
- Share your story about how air pollution impacts you. We'll use it to help call on our elected officials for healthy air.
- Visit http://www.lung.org/healthyair to learn more and find more ways to take action.
While we can help protect ourselves and our families by knowing our risks, limiting our exposure and reducing personal contributions to air pollution, we must also support policies that combat climate change and limit air pollution.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023