Heat Wave Health Risks: Safety Tips for Extreme Heat

People around the world are feeling the tangible evidence of climate change. The extreme heat events  in the UK, Pakistan, and China in July are yet another reminder that climate change is real and has devastating effects on the global population.

The 2021 IPCC report has made it clear that without significant intervention from governments and the population, the Earth is on course to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decade. This warming that the planet is experiencing leads to an increased frequency of heat waves — along with sea level rise, drought, and other consequences of climate change.

A study published in Nature Climate Change projects that week-long extreme heat events are two to seven times more likely to occur from 2021 to 2050 in comparison to the previous three decades, showing that heat waves are becoming more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting. These heat waves are not only having a devastating effect on the environment but also on people. The World Health Organization has estimated that 166,000 people died from heat-related illnesses from 1998 to 2017. We can expect the yearly death toll from extreme heat to grow as our planet continues to warm.

As more regions experience heat waves, it’s essential to understand their risks and how to protect yourself during an extreme heat event.

Potential Health Risks of a Heat Wave

Similar to extremely cold weather, which can put people at risk of hypothermia or frostbite, exposure to extreme heat presents health risks, some of which can be life-threatening. Heat-related illnesses include:

  • Heat stroke: Brought on by the body’s inability to regulate its temperature; the sweat mechanism no longer works effectively, and the body cannot cool down. Without treatment, a heat stroke could be fatal. Symptoms include confusion, slurred speech, rapid breathing, seizures, and nausea. A heat stroke victim often has a high body temperature but isn’t sweating.
  • Rhabdomyolysis: Severe dehydration and overheating can cause the rapid breakdown, rupture, and death of muscle, releasing excess waste into the bloodstream. Without sufficient fluids, the kidneys cannot dispose of this waste, which can result in damage to the heart or kidneys, leading to permanent disability or death. Symptoms include muscle cramps or swelling, dark urine, and fatigue or weakness.
  • Heat cramps: Cramps brought on by depleted salt levels from excessive sweating. Although uncomfortable, these cramps are not life-threatening.
  • Heat rash: A skin irritation resulting from excessive sweating. The rash can be very noticeable and occur throughout the body but is not life-threatening.
Older man suffering from heat-related illness
Older adults and children age 4 and younger are most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

What To Do if Someone Has a Heat-Related Illness

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition; if anyone around you is experiencing the symptoms of heat stroke, call 911. Move the person to the shade or inside, remove excess clothing, and cool their body by bathing or spraying the skin with cool water or by applying ice packs or cold, wet towels. Do not give the person anything to drink.

If you think someone has heat exhaustion or rhabdomyolysis, get them to a clinic or emergency room for immediate treatment. Heat cramps alone rarely require medical attention, but as muscle cramps can be a symptom of heat exhaustion, watch for other symptoms. You may need a medical professional for heat rashes, but only if the rash remained for three to four days.

For anyone with a heat-related illness, it’s a good idea to stop physical activity, provide them fluids (unless they have heat stroke), move them out of the sun, and loosen their clothing. These actions can help alleviate some of the stress on the body.

Heat-Related Illness information sheet
Source: Centers for Disease Control

How To Protect Yourself During a Heat Wave

With heat waves increasingly becoming a problem worldwide, it is critical to be familiar with ways to stay cool and protect yourself during extreme heat. Below are a few precautions to remember if you are enduring a heat wave.

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of cool beverages helps replenish the fluids you lose when you sweat and helps cool the body. Avoid sugary, caffeinated, and alcoholic drinks; water is the best option. But don’t overdo it; the CDC advises no more than 48 ounces per hour. That’s because too much fluid could bring the levels of salt in the bloodstream too low, which can lead to medical problems.
  • Wear light, loose clothing: Light-colored clothing can reflect light and heat, and lightweight, loose-fitting garments allow for better air circulation. If you have to be in the sun, wear a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Replace electrolytes: Excess sweating can lead to a loss of essential minerals known as electrolytes, leading to a higher risk of cramps or fainting. To compensate for those losses, try coconut water — which is low in sugar and contains electrolytes — or a quick snack of electrolyte-replenishing foods such as salted almonds and a banana.
  • If it gets too hot inside, don’t use a fan: At temperatures of 95 F (30 C) or higher, a fan will only circulate the already hot air, keeping the room hot and potentially adding to the heat.
  • Avoid using stoves and ovens: With the room temperature already high from the heat wave, it is essential not to add additional heat on top of it.
  • Do not sit in a car for long periods: Cars in extreme heat can act as incubation hubs, putting more strain on the body than if you were simply walking outside. Even in the shade, cars quickly heat to dangerous levels. Never leave children or pets in a hot car.
  • Readjust your exercise schedule: If you are used to exercising during the day, consider changing your routine to work out before sunrise. Temperatures will be more manageable in the morning, thus decreasing the risk of heat-related illness. However, you may still need to adjust your workout routine to avoid strenuous activity.

Heat Waves at Night

Some precautions we’ve mentioned, like wearing light clothing and staying hydrated, are also helpful when the heat waves drag on into the night. Additional tips to stay cool during the night include:

  • Freeze a washcloth and use it as a cold compress on your head.
  • If you normally sleep with a partner, avoid close contact, as both of your bodies will generate extra heat.
  • Put your mattress on the ground or lower level of the house. Heat rises, so the lower you get, the less heat you will experience. This could mean sleeping on the floor in your room or your basement. The lower you can get in the house, the better.

Climate Change Is Here, But We Are Not Defenseless

Climate change is apparent, and its symptoms are more evident daily. As heat waves increase in frequency, it is essential to pay attention to your local news or weather app. Heat waves can come with little warning.

It is also essential to know that each of us can act against climate change. Whether you choose to switch to a plant-based diet, adopt solar energy for your household, or lobby your local government officials to pass eco-friendly legislation, any little effort makes a difference. Climate change may be happening now, but that does not mean our steps today can’t help prevent the worst possible outcome.

About the Author

Vinson WaitersVinson Waiters is a writer from Florida who has been writing short stories for over 10 years and now writes blogs/articles. With a curious mind and a love for research, he enjoys writing about anything, especially topics he previously knew nothing about. He is pursuing his bachelor’s in Egyptian History with the long-term hope of being a professor and best-selling author.