Heat indexes are hitting the triple digits and health officials are warning Missourians to know the signs of heat-related illness and reminding them to take steps to prevent them.

Lori Harris-Franklin is an epidemiologist with the Department of Health. She says there are two separate illnesses to watch for in these conditions: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. (Click to see symptoms, etc.)

Harris-Franklin says heat exhaustion doesn’t necessarily present a life-threatening situation.

She says those suffering from heat exhaustion need to rest in a cool place, loosen clothing, cool down with wet towels or a cool shower and drink non-alcoholic and caffeine free beverages to rehydrate. If you suspect heat stroke, call an ambulance.

Heat stroke is when the sweating stops, skin turns red and is hot to the touch and the heart rate becomes rapid. Often the headaches will intensify and vomiting and unconciousness can follow.

The department reports 11 Missourians died from heat-related causes last year.

While the very young, the elderly and the chronically ill are at greatest risk of heat-related illness, summer temperatures can take a toll on healthy young and middle-aged adults, too, she says.

Of the 11 Missourians who died from heat-related causes last year, eight were 25 to 64 years of age. Only three were age 65 or older.

The elderly and the chronically ill perspire less and are more likely to be taking medication that can impair the body’s response to heat or that make them more sensitive to the heat.

Those medications include antihistamines, over-the-counter sleeping pills, antidepressants, heart drugs, antipsychotics, major tranquilizers and some medications for Parkinson’s disease. People should check with their doctor or pharmacist to find out if their medications make them more sensitive to summer’s high temperatures.

Seniors citizens on fixed incomes often do not have air conditioning or feel they cannot afford the extra expense of running it. Since many seniors live alone, Missourians should check on elderly family members and neighbors regularly to be sure they are not suffering from the effects of the heat.

Missourians can call the state’s toll-free abuse and neglect hotline at 1-800-392-0210 to report senior citizens or adults with disabilities suffering from the heat and needing assistance. The hotline operates 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Young children are also sensitive to heat and must rely on adults to regulate their environments to prevent heat-related illness.

Infants and children should not be left unattended in hot environments, especially in cars, even with the air conditioner running. A car’s interior can reach oven-like temperatures in minutes, putting anyone inside at risk of overheating. Children also should not be allowed to play in or around cars. Small children can become trapped because they are not big enough to open the door or roll down the window to get out. They also can fall asleep inside a hot vehicle or play or hide in the trunk of a car.

Children also can become dehydrated very quickly. Small children often do not drink as much liquid as they should and can become dehydrated. Adults need to encourage children to drink plenty of fluids every day.

View the Health Department’s site on hyperthermia and heat precaustions.

Locate a cooling center near you where seniors and other people at risk of heat related illness can go to cool down.

In Missouri, the greatest numbers of heat-related deaths have occurred in the urban, more densely populated areas of St. Louis City, St Louis County and Jackson County (Kansas City). Of the 203 heat-related deaths reported from 2000 through 2008, there were 125 (62%) deaths in these metropolitan areas. Rural deaths accounted for 78 (38%) of the deaths. Non-Missouri residents who succumb to heat while visiting are considered cases, accounting for 5 (2%) deaths. White males are the most frequent victims of heat-related illness resulting in death. In the same eight-year period, there were 99 (49%) white male deaths. Hyperthermia Mortality by Race and Sex, Missouri 2000-2008.

Slightly more than half 109 (54%) of the 203 deaths during 2000-2008 were in the 65 year and older age group. Victims in this population often live alone and have other complicating medical conditions. Also, lack of air conditioning or refusal to use it for fear of higher utility expenses contributes to the number of deaths in the senior population. There were 84 (41%) hyperthermia deaths occurring in the 5 through 64-year-old age group. These deaths often have contributing causes such as physical activity (sports or work), complicating medical conditions, or substance abuse. Circumstances causing hyperthermia deaths in young children often involve a motor vehicle—a child left in or climbing into a parked vehicle during hot weather. From 2000-2008, there were 10 (5%) deaths of children less than five years of age.

In August 2007, Missouri experienced a heat wave that lasted approximately 21 days and resulted in 34 hyperthermia deaths. The heat wave started August 2 with a heat index of 101 in Cape Girardeau and spread across the state. By August 7, the five cities that the Department of Health receives daily heat data on from the National Weather Service were experiencing heat indices of 103 or higher. The heat index remained in the upper 90s or higher in at least one of the five areas until Aug. 25.

Public and private emergency response plans were implemented across the state. These responses included opening cooling centers, distributing ice, water, and people checking door-to-door for persons in danger from the heat. Without this quick and intensive response, public health officials believe mortality from the August 2007 heat wave would have been much greater. Fortunately, hot weather during the summer of 2008 was much more sporadic and less prolonged, resulting in 10 deaths statewide.

Missouri’s highest temperatures generally occur in July and August each summer. Thus, the majority of hot-weather-related deaths also occur during these months. Of the 203 deaths from 2000-2008, 94 (46.3%) deaths were during the month of July and 78 (38.4%) were in August.

Missouri is the only state that conducts on-going statewide surveillance for hot weather-related illnesses and deaths. Health care providers are required to report cases of hyperthermia to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.