‘Like heat-COVID’: Months of extreme heat wear on physical, mental health

A woman sits on the couch eating a plate of food.
Theresa Joubert, 59, eats breakfast on the couch in her living room, surrounded by fans. Photo by Alena Maschke

Theresa Joubert, 59, sits in her living room, surrounded by fans, The Price is Right on the TV. Normally, she likes to go for walks around the neighborhood with her caretaker, Shirley McPherson, or sit underneath the trees in her yard.

But this summer, the heat has kept Joubert stuck at home. “I go outside, I’m dizzy,” Joubert said. “It’s that bad out there.”

For seniors like Joubert, the long-lasting heat this summer has been especially taxing. But across demographics, the exposure to — or efforts to avoid — the abnormally high temperatures of recent months have had adverse effects on people’s overall health.

“On an individual basis, it’s difficult to know if there’s a compounding effect,” said Aaron Webb, a physician’s assistant at the medical director’s office at Acadian Ambulance. The data, however, paints a picture of an accumulating impact. 

The ambulance company saw increases in heat-related problems among the patients it transported in Louisiana in June and July compared to last year, 26% and 20%, respectively. Then, in August, normally a time when those numbers start to wane, it saw more than double the amount of heat-related health issues over the previous year.

“This is abnormal,” Webb said. “You certainly have to pay more attention. Everything just has to be more cautious.”

The heat can exacerbate the symptoms of existing health issues, such as heart problems, respiratory issues or multiple sclerosis, according to physicians. Some medications used to treat those conditions, especially cardiovascular issues, can make those who take them more susceptible to heat-related illness.

Kenneth Mueller, an assistant clinical professor at the Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta, said patients on heart or blood pressure medication are advised to be careful when visiting a sauna, for example. When outside temperatures resemble a sauna, as they have for most of this summer, daily tasks bear greater risk for those patients.

“It’s definitely cause for concern,” Mueller said. Even very common medications, such as ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can lead to severe reactions when paired with prolonged heat exposure, kidney injuries being the most common concern.

A woman plates a meal on a kitchen counter
Caretaker Shirley McPherson plates a meal of eggs, bacon and grits on the kitchen counter of Theresa Joubert’s home in North Lafayette. Photo by Alena Maschke

Staying on top of their medications has been more of a challenge for her patients as a result of the heat as well, said Dr. Traci Bourgeois, a general physician at Ochsner Lafayette General Community Health Center. At her clinic, Bourgeois said, providers are “seeing compliance issues as patients are having transportation challenges and unable to walk to the pharmacy or not scheduling appointments for routine care.”

Then there are the mental health implications of being cooped up for months on end as high temperatures turn every trip outside into a battle against the elements.

“It’s almost like heat-COVID,” said Michele Veillon, CEO and co-owner of Senior Helpers, an agency offering at-home care for seniors. 

Even the caretakers struggle with the tasks they usually do for their clients, such as running errands or doing yard work to keep their neighbors happy. Adjusting to it is hard, said McPherson, Joubert’s caretaker. “The heat gets to me,” she admitted.

Chris Roy, executive director of 232-HELP, which provides crisis support and resource referrals, has noticed the same among both his clients and staff.

“It’s like an existential dread,” Roy said of the mood callers and — at times — staff members are in, as the relentless heat has dragged on. “There’s a real fatigue,” he added, noting that he’s seen more of his staff members call in sick or ask to work from home in the wake of unusually high temperatures.

“We typically think about physical health, coming in with a [heat] stroke and heat exhaustion or burns,” said Dr. Tina Stefanski, medical director for the Office of Public Health in the Acadiana region. Stefanski pointed to a 2022 study of emergency visits led by the University of Albany, NY, that showed increased visits for severe mental health symptoms during hot days. 

“Clearly, there’s an effect on our mental health, when we’re exposed to this heat,” Stefanski said.

Whether it’s physical or mental health symptoms, periods of lingering, extremely high temperature pose a threat to public health and caution is advisable, noted Stefanski. “People need to not assume that they’re immune and take precautions,” she said.