As heatwave conditions persist across much of Australia, the combination of heat and humidity has been difficult for many people, particularly those who work outside, the very young and the elderly. The free national health advice service Healthdirect has some useful advice about danger signs and how to respond to heat-related illness.
The Chief Medical Officer at Healthdirect is Dr Nirvana Luckraj.
She says, ‘The best way to prevent heat-related illness is to drink plenty of water and to stay as cool as possible. Heat-related illnesses include dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, a worsening of existing medical conditions and in the worst cases, heat stroke.
‘It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and to recognise and treat affected people quickly,’ said Dr Luckraj
‘You can get advice from a registered nurse by calling Healthdirect on 1800 022 222 If you or someone near you is feeling very unwell and does not respond to cooling and rehydration within 10 minutes, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.’
Extreme weather and human health
According to national morbidity databases, in the 10 years from 2012-13 to 2021–22, extreme weather events such as heat, bushfires and storms lead to a total of 9,119 hospitalisations. Of these, a vast majority – 7,104 – were heat-related.
From 2011–12 to 2020–21, heat was the cause of 293 of the 677 extreme weather-related injury deaths, with heat-related illness not being confined to heat stroke.
Every year in Australia, hot weather and heat waves cause illness, hospitalisations and sometimes death. If temperatures continue to rise as predicted, heatwaves will become more frequent, hotter, and last longer. This is why it’s important to know how to prepare for high temperatures, and how to provide first aid for heat-induced health conditions.
Who is most at risk from heat-related illness?
While most people find extremely hot weather and heatwaves uncomfortable, some people have a higher risk than others of becoming ill. These include:
- adults aged over 75 years, babies and young children
- people with long-term health conditions, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes
- people living with overweight or obesity
- people taking certain medicines
- people who are socially isolated
- people who work outdoors or in hot and poorly ventilated areas
- people who are not accustomed to the heat, such as overseas visitors
Key signs and symptoms
When someone is becoming unwell due to hot weather, they may experience signs and symptoms such as:
- dizziness, tiredness, thirst, dark-coloured urine or fainting (if dehydrated)
- muscle pains or spasms (in the case of heat cramps)
- heavy sweating, pale skin, a fast pulse rate, fast breathing, headache or dizziness (if exhausted)
- an itchy, painful rash (‘prickly heat’) caused by excessive sweating
In terms of heat stroke, symptoms include: a sudden rise in body temperature (above 40°C); red, hot dry skin, because the person has stopped sweating (although they may still be sweaty if they have been exercising), intense thirst; fast pulse and rapid, shallow breathing, nausea and vomiting.
More extreme cases can lead to aggressive or bizarre behaviour, confusion, poor coordination or slurred speech, loss of consciousness, seizures or coma.
How to stay safe during a heatwave
- Drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty, to avoid dehydration – this is the best way to minimise the risk of heat-related illness, but avoid alcoholic, hot or sugary drinks and make sure you take a water bottle with you if you go outside.
- Keep your body cool – for example, stay out of the sun and minimise physical activity.
- Keep your house cool by shutting curtains and blinds during the day. Air conditioning and fans can be a great help if you have them.
- Take care of others – never leave babies, children or animals alone in a car, remind children to drink water, check on elderly neighbours, and ensure animals have water and shade.
- Check the weather forecast and know who to call if you need help.
- Keep food safe by ensuring it’s properly stored if it needs refrigeration.
For more information, and a useful free online symptom checker, Healthdirect is available here.