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How do your zip code and medications make you susceptible to heat risk? CDC tool aims to help

Tamara Zaazoue for Side Effects Public Media
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1,220 people die from extreme heat every year in the U.S. This number has climbed in recent years.

Roughly 2,300 people in the U.S. died due to extreme heat in 2023. That risk is likely not going away soon, as scientists say climate change is causing more intense and frequent heat waves. To address that, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released new tools to help people plan for higher temperatures across the country.

The tools include heat risk forecasts, links outlining medications that could make you vulnerable during a heat wave, and a list of actions individuals can take to stay cool.

The goal is to help people stay safe and address a rising number of heat-related emergency room visits and deaths in recent years.

Seventy people died in the Midwest from exposure to excessive heat in 2018 – that number increased by around 70% in 2022 reaching 120 deaths, according to the CDC.

While Southern states had the largest volume of ER visits for heat-related illnesses between 2008 to 2020, the Midwest has seen the largest average annual increase in visits during the same period.

(Video explaining how to use the CDC's HeatRisk tool)

Dr. Ari Bernstein, the director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, said the new heat tools are aimed at getting regions that historically have not had to worry about hot temperatures to begin taking their impact on health more seriously.

“I grew up in the Midwest and people take cold temperatures pretty darn seriously,” he said. “Not so much for heat.”

According to the World Health Organization, even a small increase in temperatures can negatively impact people’s health, especially vulnerable populations like children, pregnant people and those with obesity. People who take certain medications may also be at an increased risk.

The human body uses several methods to cool off including sweat and widening of blood vessels under the skin, which brings the warm blood closer to the surface of the skin releasing the heat. But several medications can impact those built in mechanisms making people more susceptible to heat-related health problems.

Some medications used to treat heart conditions, allergies, Parkinson’s disease as well as some ADHD medications, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and decongestants can interfere with the body’s built in cooling mechanisms.

“Part of these [CDC] heat action plans we have a section that says, ‘Ok, let's identify what medications might increase your sensitivity,’” Bernstein said.

The tool also works to identify how the same temperatures in different parts of the country create different levels of risk.

“What we were able to do is use health outcome data –– meaning how many people get sick and may die given a certain temperature in communities around the country,” Bernstein said. “Ninety degrees in Fargo is not the same as ninety degrees in Tallahassee.”

According to Bernstein, heat results in different health outcomes across the country because of a complex mix of factors including access to healthcare systems and the overall health of a given community.

The CDC’s tool uses a zip code to identify both the local temperatures and level of risk under the current weather conditions.

You can access the dashboard at cdc.gov/heatrisk.

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Benjamin Thorp is an enterprise health reporter at WFYI and Side Effects Public Media. Before coming to Indiana, Ben was previously a reporter for WCMU public radio in Michigan. His work has been heard on multiple national broadcasts, including All Things Considered and Morning Edition.