As temperatures rise, Hampton Roads hospitals see hundreds of patients with heat-related illness
As temperatures surge in Virginia during the summer, so do trips to the emergency room.
Each day this July, at least a dozen Virginians visited a local urgent care or emergency department suffering from heat-related illness. On most days, that number was double, triple or even nine times as high.
“This is definitely affecting Virginians and people should really take it seriously when the weather is getting really hot,” said Meredith Davis, an epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health.
The department tracks heat-related hospital visits each year, focusing on the hottest period from May through September.
More than 400 people have visited emergency or urgent care centers in the greater Hampton Roads region this summer.
That’s about a quarter of all such visits in the state.
Heat-related illness refers to a range of issues that happen when the body is overheated and can’t properly cool itself.
Symptoms can be mild, like muscle cramps or heat rash. In other cases, extreme heat can be life-threatening.
Dr. Lewis Siegel, chair of the emergency medicine department at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, said that includes heat stroke.
When temperatures get high enough in the body, they can start to impact the person’s organs. Dehydration can lead to kidney failure. The most severe form attacks the brain.
“In the simplest way of looking at it, the brain gets cooked and brain tissue can get affected,” Siegel said. “It can be tragic and fatal.”
Heat is often cited as the deadliest weather-related event in the U.S. each year. Last year, then-White House national climate advisor Gina McCarthy called it a “silent killer.”
Since 2007, a total of 135 people in Virginia have died specifically from hyperthermia —heat stroke or heat fatigue — according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. The peak was 21 in 2012.
Elderly people are more vulnerable to more serious complications, though people in their thirties have had the highest number of heat-related visits in Virginia this year.
Overall the state’s seen a slow increase in heat-related illness since 2015, when the department started tracking it more closely.
That year, the state had just over 1,800 heat-related visits between May and September.
This year, the state hit almost 1,700 just through July, and nearly 3,000 total last summer.
And that doesn’t cover certain cases in which heat exacerbated existing health conditions, Davis said.
“We may not necessarily capture all of that because somebody may not say when they show up in the emergency department that the reason that they're having kidney failure is because of heat,” she said. “It may be difficult to measure some of the maybe less direct impacts of heat.”
But according to VDH analysis, about 6% of all Virginia emergency room and urgent care visits each summer can be attributed to heat, Davis said.
Extreme heat is only expected to get worse with climate change. It’s rising in Virginia and everywhere else.
Average annual high daily temperatures in much of Hampton Roads could reach about 78 degrees Fahrenheit toward the end of the century – up from an average 68.7 degrees between 1960-1990, according to federal data.
Minimum overnight temperatures – supposed to be the coolest time of day – are going up at an even faster pace in Virginia, scientist Jeremy Hoffman told WHRO last year.
Humidity – a constant in the Commonwealth – makes things worse, preventing sweat from evaporating and cooling down the body.
Siegel said the best way to deal with heat illness is to prevent it. That means staying indoors when it’s extremely hot, taking breaks if you have to be outdoors, wearing loose-fitting clothing and drinking plenty of fluids.
If you do start to feel symptoms, immerse yourself in cool water or try other evaporation cooling techniques like misting cold water on your skin or applying ice packs.
People who start to show confusion, loss of consciousness or extreme body temperature should be moved to a cool place and seen by a medical professional immediately.