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What Are the Health Risks of Extreme Temperatures?

Health education can help people avoid being harmed by extreme heat or cold.

Every year in the U.S., there are more than 550 heat-related deaths and more than 675 hypothermia-related deaths.* Thousands of others suffer illness or permanent disability from exposure to extreme heat or cold. In most cases, these deaths and illnesses are preventable. Not only can governments and nonprofits provide appropriate assistance for extreme heat and cold events, but community health initiatives focused on health and wellness can help people better understand how extreme temperatures can negatively affect them and how they can protect themselves in such conditions. Here’s what people need to know.


The Dangers of Extreme Heat

When our bodies get overheated, they lose the ability to keep functioning. The main problem is water and salt depletion. We lose both when we sweat, and if either gets too low, our bodies can’t cool themselves down. The longer our bodies struggle to stay cool, the more we put our health—and even our lives—at risk. Health science divides the consequences of excessive exposure to heat into heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Recognizing the symptoms of both can be the difference between life and death.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Excessive thirst
Cramps (Common in athletes playing in hot environments, cramps are painful and involuntary muscle spasms. Cramps in the calves, arms, abdominals, and back are most common.)
Rapid heart rate
Physical weakness
Dizziness and disorientation
Nausea and/or vomiting

Symptoms of Heatstroke

Red, hot, dry skin
High temperature (fever)

What to Do?

Untreated heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, and heatstroke can lead to permanent neurological damage or death. If you experience any of the symptoms of heat exhaustion, you need to get out of the heat and into shade/air conditioning. You also need to consume water and sodium. An electrolyte-rich drink is a good choice. If you experience any of the symptoms of heatstroke, you need to be taken to the hospital immediately.

The Dangers of Extreme Cold

Our bodies’ only natural defense to extreme cold is to shiver (to generate heat from our muscles) and to constrict our blood vessels to limit blood flow to the skin and extremities (reducing heat loss). Neither of these responses provides much protection and, if you’re exposed to extreme cold for too long, you’re at risk of suffering health consequences. These consequences include:

Frostnip: The earliest stage of frostbite, frostnip is when extremities such as the fingers, toes, ears, or nose experience a decrease in blood flow due to the body’s constriction of blood vessels. The skin becomes unnaturally pale, indicating that blood flow is minimal and that the body is preparing to sacrifice the extremity in order to preserve heat elsewhere.
Frostbite: If blood flow remains slowed in an extremity, ice crystals can form in the cells, leading to cellular death. Deep frostbite can kill the extremity entirely, causing you to lose it.
Hypothermia: Exposure to the cold, particularly when immersed in water, can cause the body’s core temperature to drop. Even a temperature drop of a degree or two can be serious. Hypothermia causes numbness, a loss in dexterity, and confusion. If untreated, it typically results in death.

What to Do?

In instances of frostnip, covering the extremity is often enough to solve the problem, although retreating to a heated environment is an even better solution. For frostbite, seek a heated environment immediately. Mild frostbite is painful but will resolve as the body warms and then heals. Deep frostbite is generally irreversible and often leads to amputation. In all cases of frostbite, you should seek medical attention. In the event of hypothermia, you need to be rushed to a hospital.

How Can You Help Reduce the Health Consequences of Extreme Temperatures?

Extreme heat and cold events happen every year, and the world needs public health professionals who can help provide the health education and health services necessary to prevent illness and death. If you want to help reduce the risks that extreme temperatures pose to individual and community health, you should consider earning a BS in Public Health with a concentration in Health Promotion and Wellness. Whether you currently work in public health or are seeking to enter the field, a bachelor’s in public health can help you leverage your experience to take the next step in your career, giving you the opportunity to change your world and the world of those around you.

While returning to school to earn a bachelor’s degree can seem daunting, online education can make it a lot more feasible. When you enroll in a bachelor of public health program at an online university, you can complete your coursework from home while holding down a full-time job. It’s a convenient and flexible way to earn the kind of degree that can help you help others avoid the risks of extreme temperatures.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online BS in Public Health program with a concentration in Health Promotion and Wellness. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Preparing for and Responding to Extreme Heat and Cold Events, on the Internet at 3