As local New Orleanians know, once the temperature begins to rise and the summer heat takes hold, there is no turning back. As June begins, most are justifiably focused on the start of hurricane season, but residents should not forget about the health risks associated with increased temperatures.

Heat-related illness and deaths occur throughout the United States, especially in areas such as New Orleans where high heat is combined with high humidity and long periods without rain. The key is to remember that these types of illnesses and deaths are preventable.

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion happen when the body cannot cool itself properly. Sweating becomes the body's primary cooling mechanism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), problems may develop when the body cannot produce enough sweat or the sweat it does produce evaporates too quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly.

As locals, we have adapted to the heat pretty well, but our heat and humidity can be dangerous, particularly for those new to the area and for those very young or old among us, says Dr. John Wales, medical director of the East Jefferson General Hospital Emergency Department.

"I am very concerned about those coming in from out of town to work on houses and volunteer in the area. They need to be educated on what our heat can do or they are going to run into real trouble."

Everyone needs to take precautions before going outside, especially in the early part of summer as our bodies begin to adjust to the increased temperatures. Whether you are exercising, mowing the lawn or just enjoying a picnic, many of the same rules apply. Drink plenty of fluids and do not wait until you are thirsty. Avoid alcohol, large amounts of sugar and caffeine because they can cause fluid loss.

Wear light, loose-fitting clothes, a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Apply sunscreen of at least SPF 15 or higher approximately 30 minutes before you go outside to avoid sunburn.

Other ways to avoid heat-related illnesses is simply to plan your day sensibly and pace yourself. You should not over-exert yourself during physical activities, and if you plan to be outside, make it in the morning or later in the day so you are not in the heat during the hottest part of the day. Ultimately, your best line of defense is to stay indoors in the air conditioning when the heat is at its peak.

When you are outside, always look for early signs and symptoms of heat stroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. The CDC reports that the warning signs include red, hot skin, a lack of sweating, weakness or dizziness, headaches, nausea or vomiting and confusion. If you notice any of these symptoms developing, immediately drink cool fluids, rest and get in the shade or air conditioning. If you do start feeling a little lightheaded or if it seems you are not handling the heat very well, get inside as quickly as you can, drink fluids and stop exerting yourself, Dr. Wales says. If the symptoms persist, seek medical attention.

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