These aren’t the dog days of summer yet, but it’s certainly been hot enough during the past couple of months to qualify. With this May ranked as the fourth-hottest by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the heat hit sooner than many expected.

With only 10 days during the entire month below 80 degrees and six days topping 90 degrees, May in Martinsville was muggy.

So what? It’s hot. Big deal. In Southwestern Virginia, there are a million ways to beat the heat. There are multiple swimming pools, a scenic lake at Fairy Stone State Park and air conditioning in most houses, businesses and vehicles. If someone gets too hot, it shouldn’t be such an issue to cool off, right? Well, not exactly.

Heat, which seems like a simple thing to avoid in today’s world, is a silent slayer. In fact, it’s the No. 1 weather-related killer — and that’s not just during these past couple of months, it’s for the past 30 years.

In a three-decade time period, ranging from 1988 to 2018, overexposure to heat caused an average of 136 deaths a year, according to the National Weather Service. That’s compared to oftentimes more publicized weather-related fatalities such as floods and tornadoes, which respectively came in at No. 2 and No. 3, with averages of 80 and 69 deaths a year.

In 2018, the National Weather Service reported that 108 deaths resulted from overexposure to heat.

At Sovah-Martinsville, a dozen people have entered the emergency room since the start of the year seeking treatment for heat-related cases.

“Generally, peak times for heat-related visits to our ER are at the end of July and August,” said Elizabeth Harris, director of marketing.

When temperatures rise, so do heat-related risks. While venturing outside for a few minutes likely won’t cause harm, staying in the hot sun for an extended period of time causes problems.

“Overexposure to heat can be incredibly dangerous, especially for children and the elderly. With summer in full swing and our area experiencing high temperatures, it’s essential that we’re all heat smart. This means taking steps to prevent overexposure and learning to recognize and respond to the signs of heat stroke,” said Dr. Edna Gordon, an emergency room physician at Sovah-Martinsville.

Gordon encouraged those venturing outside – especially at peak heat hours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. – to be aware of temperatures and humidity levels and to modify their activities appropriately. Wearing loose-fitting, lightweight and light-colored clothing also reduces a person’s chances of overheating.

It’s also a good idea to stay hydrated, but not by drinking sugary sodas or that local staple, sweet tea. Alcohol should also be left off of the hydration preparation kit, as it can impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Water is a good choice any time, any day, but low-sugar and no-sugar fluids also provide relief.

Dr. Gordon also suggested that people stay in relatively cool areas, even when outside, and that they avoid hot, enclosed places, such as cars and garages.

A parked car could be just as dangerous for a pet as it could be for a person. Catherine Gupton, facility manager at the SPCA of Martinsville-Henry County, encouraged people to take special heat-related precautions for their animals this summer.

“Temperatures in cars can rise really rapidly,” Gupton said. “Several vets and even the shelter did it last year, where someone sits in the car without it running to show how quick it can heat up. It gets well over 90 degrees when the air’s not moving. If your dog is confined, there’s no way for them to escape the heat.”

There’s no magical temperature at which dogs or cats start to overheat. As a general rule, Gupton said that if it’s too hot for a person, it’s too hot for a pet.

“It’s really subjective,” Gupton said. “It depends on the size of the animal, the weight of the animal and what kind of fur it has.”

If a pet owner can takes an animal inside where there’s air conditioning, that’s best. For those who aren’t able to do that, there are a number of provisions they can set up outside, including ample shaded areas provided by trees and shrubs and a stable shelter with ventilation. To help generate airflow, many pet owners elevate a shelter, allowing air to pass underneath. Animals also need access to fresh, cool, clean water.

If exposed to high temperatures for too long, dangers could occur for both people and pets.

According to Gordon, heat stroke, a form of hyperthermia with accompanying physical and neurological symptoms, is different from heat exhaustion, a less-severe form of hyperthermia. Heat stroke is a true medical emergency that can be fatal if not quickly and appropriately treated.

Signs of overexposure to heat in humans include pale, clammy skin, muscle cramps, headache, feeling tired and weak, nausea or vomiting, confusion or disorientation and becoming semiconscious or passing out.

Those experiencing heat-induced illnesses are encouraged to get out of the sun immediately, apply water to help cool off, apply ice to the neck or armpits where large blood vessels are close to the surface, remove heavy clothing and seek relief in cool bodies of water, like a swimming pool or a cold bathtub or shower.

For animals, the signs of heat overexposure are different than they are for humans. Furry friends often experience excessive panting, difficulty breathing, an increased heart rate, drooling, weakness, lethargy and collapse. Seizures and vomiting may also occur, but are rare.

Gupton encouraged pet owners to take their animals to a veterinarian if they note signs of heat overexposure. They may also apply cool, wet cloths to their animal’s body, specifically on the neck, paw pads and ears.

“You never want to just drop an animal in a real cold bath,” Gupton said. “It could shock them.”

Amie Knowles can be reached at amierknowles@gmail.com

Amie Knowles can be reached at amierknowles@gmail.com