Last summer, the Bureau of Meteorology routinely reported all-time-high temperature statements and the record-breaking heatwave was declared a state of emergency as humans and animals alike suffered in the sweltering heat. An increase in heat-related illnesses resulted in more ambulance calls and doctor visits than usual.
This year, the Bureau of Meteorology is again predicting above average summer temperatures across most of Australia on their outlook for December through March. Here is what you should know about your health and soaring summer temperatures.
How serious are heat-related illnesses?
There are three stages of heat-related illnesses and each one is progressively worse.
Stage one: heat cramps
Heat cramps occur when the body has an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are the important minerals the body needs to function properly. An electrolyte imbalance can cause muscles spasms, especially when the person has been physically active outdoors.
Stage two: heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body becomes dehydrated and the body struggles to effectively cool itself. The person will sweat profusely as their body tries to cool itself. They may also feel nauseous and have a headache.
Stage three: heatstroke
Heatstroke is the most serious form of heat-related illnesses. Instead of wet with perspiration, the skin is hot and dry. The internal temperature is dangerously elevated to 40 degrees Celsius or higher. This fever can lead to confusion, seizures or unconsciousness. A heatstroke can also cause brain and organ damage and is considered a medical emergency.
Who can get a heat-related illness?
Anyone can become overheated, but those who are young, elderly or pregnant as well as those with chronic illnesses and those who drink alcohol are at a higher risk of a heat-related illness as their body’s cooling system may not work as effectively.
Some medications and drugs may also increase the likelihood of a heat-related illness and reduce the effectiveness of the body’s ability to deal with high temperatures. For example, stimulants, whether licit, such as those used to treat attention deficit disorders, or illicit, such as cocaine, raise the body’s core temperature. This means your body will need to work extra hard to keep your temperature normal.
People with heart disease or high blood pressure often take heat blockers or medications to lower blood pressure. These medications reduce blood flow to the skin, which in turn makes it harder for your body to cool down.
Some medications increase the likelihood of dehydration, such as diuretics that reduce fluid retention. Medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease, psychiatric illnesses as well as common over the counter cold and allergy medications also decrease the body’s ability to sweat.
How can Australians stay cool this summer?
When temperatures are extreme, people get uncomfortable. But scorching heat can be dangerous as well. These tips will help you keep you comfortable and safe.
Wear the right clothing
Choose light-coloured clothing that is made from natural fibres, such as cotton or linen. Free flowing rather than fitted fabrics will also help keep you cooler.
Discuss your medications with your doctor
If you struggle to keep cool and are currently on medications that may affect your body’s ability to deal with the heat, your physician may be able to switch you to an alternative with less side effects.
Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to replace what your body perspires. You can download an app on your cell phone that reminds you to take a drink. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which will dehydrate you. When outdoors, consider a sports drink to replace electrolytes.
Run errands early in the morning or later in the evening when it is cooler. During heatwaves, stay inside in air conditioned spaces as much as possible. Even if you have done everything you can to prepare to guard against a heat-related illnesses, you may still become overheated.
While getting out of the sun and taking steps to cool the body and replenish fluids often corrects the problem, if you or a loved one does not improve or is showing signs of a heat-related illness after hours or on the weekend, contact Hello Home Doctor Service to schedule an in-home visit.