We live in a sunburnt country where hot days and heatwaves can stress our bodies. Heatwaves are a cause of weather-related deaths in Australia and are are also considered the most underrated of natural disasters in our country.
There were almost 1,000 deaths during the severe heatwaves in southeastern Australia in 2009 when Melbourne sweltered through three consecutive days at or above 43 °C in late January.
This was almost 400 more (mostly among people aged 75 or older) than the estimated average for that time of year.
Who is most at risk from hot weather?
While most people find extremely hot weather and heatwaves uncomfortable, some people have a higher risk than others of becoming ill. These include:
- elderly people aged over 75 years
- babies and young children
- people with long term health conditions, for example heart or respiratory disease, diabetes or circulatory diseases
- people who are obese
- people taking certain medicines
- people who are socially isolated
- people who work outdoors or in hot and poorly ventilated areas
- people engaging in vigorous physical activity in hot weather
- people who are not acclimatised to the heat, for example overseas visitors.
Tips to help you stay well during hot weather
Drink plenty of water
One of the best ways to avoid heat related illness is to drink plenty of water. It’s important to keep drinking water even if you don’t feel thirsty because this can prevent you from becoming dehydrated. Avoid alcoholic, hot or sugary drinks (including tea and coffee) because these can make dehydration worse.
Keep your body cool
Keeping as cool as possible can also help you prevent heat related illness. Making sure you stay out of the sun, drinking cold drinks and eating smaller cold meals, such as salads and fruit, can help you to keep cool. Other things to do include wearing light coloured and loose fitting clothes made from natural fibres such as cotton, and taking cool showers or baths.
Keep your house cool
You can help keep your house cool by shutting curtains and blinds during the day. If you don’t have air-conditioning, go to a cool place such as a library, shopping centre, cinema or swimming pool. Stay in the coolest room in the house and use the stove and oven as little as possible.
Take care of others
Visit or call elderly friends, neighbours or relatives at least once a day. Check they have water in the fridge and encourage them to drink it. You may like to take them to a shopping centre, library or cinema with air conditioning. Children also need to be reminded to drink water, and babies, children or animals should never be left alone in a car, even if the air-conditioner is on. Ensure animals have water and plenty of shade if they are outside.
Have a plan
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and know who to call if you need help. Ask your doctor if you have any health conditions that mean you are at greater risk of heat related illness, and what you need to do about them to keep well in the heat. If you are unwell, contact your doctor or go to the nearest emergency department. If you think your symptoms are serious call for an ambulance immediately on triple zero (000). See the sections below for when you may need to seek medical help.
Keep your food safe
Make sure food that needs refrigeration is properly stored, and defrost foods in the fridge, not on the kitchen bench.
When the heat has passed, continue to drink plenty of water. Open windows and doors to let your house cool down, contact family and friends to find out how they have coped and to see if they need help, and go to your doctor if you feel unwell. You might also like to think about how well you coped and if you would do anything differently next time, including making changes to your home to make it more comfortable during extreme heat periods.
Stay safe in the sun
If you need to go out into the sun, it’s important to protect your own skin and that of your children’s. If you avoid sunburns you reduce the risk of skin cancer, which is one of the most common cancer types in Australia. See our Stay safe in the sun article for tips about using sunscreen and other kinds of sun protection.
What heat related illnesses should I look out for?
This is an itchy, painful rash commonly called ‘prickly heat’. It is caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather, and particularly affects young children.
Symptoms: A cluster of red pimples or small blisters, particularly on the neck or upper chest, or in creases in the groin, elbow and under the breasts.
What to do: Move to a cooler, less humid environment. Keep the affected areas dry (powder can help), and avoid using ointments or creams because they keep the skin warm and moist which can make the condition worse.
This occurs when the body doesn’t have enough water and other fluids to carry out its normal functions.
Symptoms: Dizziness, tiredness, irritability, thirst, dark yellow urine, loss of appetite, fainting.
What to do: Drink plenty of water or diluted fruit juice and avoid tea, coffee and alcohol. Move somewhere cool (preferably air-conditioned), and if possible use a spray bottle filled with water to cool you down. If you start to feel unwell call your doctor, the nearest emergency department or healthdirect on 1800 022 222.
These usually affect people who sweat a lot during strenuous activity causing the body to lose salt and water. This can lead to heat cramps.
Symptoms: Muscle pains or spasms. Heat cramps can also be an early symptom of heat exhaustion.
What to do: Stop all activity and lie in a cool place (preferably air-conditioned) with your legs raised slightly. Drink water or diluted fruit juice, have a cool shower or bath, massage your limbs to ease the spasms and apply cool packs. Do not go back to strenuous activity for a few hours after the cramps have subsided. If they continue for more than one hour seek medical attention.
This is the body’s reaction to losing excessive amounts of water and salt contained in sweat.
Symptoms: Heavy sweating, pale skin, fast and weak pulse rate, fast and shallow breathing, muscle weakness or cramps, tiredness and weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, fainting.
What to do: Move to a cool place (preferably air-conditioned) and lie down. Remove excess clothing, take small sips of cool fluids, and have a cool shower, bath or sponge bath. Put cool packs under the armpits, on the groin or on the back of the neck to reduce body heat. If symptoms last for longer than one hour, call your doctor, the nearest emergency department or triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
This occurs when the body temperature is not controlled properly and it rises above 40.5 °C. It is the most serious heat-related illness and is a life-threatening emergency. Immediate first aid aimed at lowering the body temperature as quickly as possible is very important.
Symptoms: A sudden rise in body temperature, red, hot dry skin (because sweating has stopped), dry swollen tongue, rapid pulse, rapid shallow breathing, intense thirst, headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, confusion, poor coordination or slurred speech, aggressive or bizarre behaviour, loss of consciousness, seizures or coma.
What to do: Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. While you are waiting for help, move the person to a cool shaded area and keep them as still as possible. Remove excess clothing and give them small sips of water if they are conscious and able to drink. Bring their temperature down any way you can, for example by gently spraying them with cool water from a spray bottle or garden hose, soaking their clothes with cool water, or sponging their body with cool water. Place cool packs under their armpits, on the groin or on the back of their neck to reduce body heat. Do not give aspirin or paracetamol because they won’t help and may be harmful. If they are unconscious, lay the person on their side (the recovery position) and check they can breathe properly. Perform CPR if needed.
Where can I get help?
If you are unwell, contact your doctor or go to the nearest emergency department. If you think your symptoms are serious call for an ambulance immediately on triple zero (000). If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile phone, try 112.
While you are waiting for an ambulance try to cool yourself down. You can do this by placing icepacks under your armpits, on your groin or on the back of the neck to reduce body heat. Take a cool shower or bath (if you feel well enough) or spray yourself with cool water from a spray bottle.
You can also call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to talk to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Contact your local council or your state or territory health authority for information specific for your area:
- Australian Capital Territory – www.health.act.gov.au or call 13 2281
- New South Wales – www.health.nsw.gov.au or call (02) 9391 9000
- Northern Territory – www.health.nt.gov.au or call (08) 8999 2400
- Queensland – www.health.qld.gov.au or call 13 43 25 84
- South Australia – www.health.sa.gov.au or call (08) 8226 6000
- Tasmania – www.dhhs.tas.gov.au or call 1300 135 513
- Victoria – www.health.vic.gov.au or call 1300 253 942
- Western Australia – www.health.wa.gov.au or call (08) 9222 4222.
Source: Health Direct Australia